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What happens when anyone can edit genes at home? We’re about to find out

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Right now, for just $140, you can get your hands on one of the most powerful gene-editing tools known to science. You don’t even have to go out of your way, either. The ODIN do-it-yourself CRISPR kit, as it’s called, will ship it to your front door.

The project is the brainchild of ex-NASA scientist Josiah Zayner, who left the agency earlier this year to sell CRISPR kits from his Castro Valley, California apartment. After raising nearly $71,500 on Indiegogo, he turned to the ODIN full time.

People have a false sense of security about academic science being “good and safe”.

Zayner is one of an international community of biohackers who want to democratize science. Biology and the body are their playgrounds. They ask why experiments should be restricted to academic institutions and why sluggish processes of federal approval should stall scientific discoveries. Thanks to many biohackers, technologies that were once locked in the ivory tower are now available to practically anyone.

But many experts think Zayner’s efforts are careless and even dangerous. They worry about handing such powerful tools to a largely unregulated community of DIY scientists who lack the rigor and oversight of those at established institutions. They’re concerned that one man in a garage could inadvertently cause irreversible harm. And, although Zayner insists his intentions are good, some scientists wonder if it’s worth the risk.

CRISPR changes everything

To understand what Zayner does and why many experts object, let’s look at the revolutionary gene-editing “tool” called CRISPR-Cas9.

Here’s the short of it: the CRISPR system lets scientists edit DNA, delete and add specific genes to create specific mutations. It’s a remarkably precise, step-by-step technique that’s easy enough to be performed at home in a DIY lab. Using this tool, geneticists can edit stem cells in a petri dish, tweak genes inside fertilized eggs, or even target multiple genes at once, giving rise to drastically unique and designed DNA sequences.

For a longer explanation, check out this video from MIT:

As powerful as the tool is, at-home CRISPR experimentation isn’t federally regulated, unless those experiments are performed on regulated organisms like certain pathogens and stem cells. The government does, however, regulate the release of engineered organisms. So, you can toy around with CRISPR in your kitchen but you can’t distribute your creation without government approval.

With CRISPR, scientists have the potential to edit out genetic diseases, edit in immunities, and create transgenic species with relative ease. The ODIN’s CRISPR kits are designed to make much simpler mutations, such as adjusting the the color and scent of yeast — but that doesn’t necessarily calm nerves.

Risks at home and at the institution

“If you look at pathogenic organisms in nature, they often differ from their nonpathogenic counterparts by very tiny modifications,” Stuart Newman, Professor of Cell Biology and Anatomy at New York Medical College, tells Digital Trends. He points to the bacteria that causes the deadly diphtheria infection. “It was a benign resident of the respiratory system,” he says. “But at some point during evolution…it picked up a protein…which allowed the bacillus to interact with the human organism and cause horrendous illness.”

And the lab isn’t always safer than nature.

“I’m worried about the inadvertent side effects of well-intentioned uses.”

Fifteen years ago, an Australian research lab attempted to genetically engineer a contraceptive for mice as pest control. Instead, they accidentally modified a mild pox into a virus that killed every mouse it infected. And that was with much cruder gene-editing tools than those available today.

“We can’t predict these things ahead of time,” Newman says. “You can’t be sure you’re going to be dealing with a benign strain or gene. There are no rules for what’s going to be pathogenic and what’s not — something is only benign until you get a concoction that has an unexpected consequence.”

Zayner takes that point but doesn’t see scientific institutions as any more legitimately safe than DIY projects.

“The argument that at-home biohacking isn’t as safe or rigorous as academia is arbitrary,” Zayner says, adding that people have a false sense of security about academic science being “good and safe,” despite regular cock-ups. He cites a paper published last month that discovered an error in a common fMRI software. The study could invalidate some 40,000 scientific papers. “Over a decade of research under question because someone coded the software wrong,” he says.

If official authorization for CRISPR-like projects were confined to academic institutions or people with PhDs, Zayner thinks scientific progress would be stonewalled. “Even if these [DIY scientists] aren’t as skilled, how much quicker could we figure out issues with disease and understand the nature of the world we live in?”

Image used with permission by copyright holder

However, this lack of skill is precisely one of Newman’s main concerns. He and Zayner are trained scientists, but the ODIN buyers may not be. There’s a scientific method, Newman says, and it must not be forgotten. “If you want to approach a scientific question, you have to have certain ideas in mind about what you want to study,” he says. “You’re not just tinkering. I don’t even know if I would call [DIY science] ‘science.’ It’s more like gaming.”

But, above all, Newman worries that provocative projects like those offered by the ODIN might undermine the gravity of the experiment.

The strains or genes in the ODIN kit are not regulated or inherently dangerous. Trained scientists have done the legwork to ensure that the CRISPR experiment results in specific, harmless outcomes. “But this gets it into people’s minds that it’s OK to genetically modify organisms — as a game or demonstration — and potentially release them into the environment,” Newman says. “And it’s not.”

Side effects may include…

Hank Greely leans back at his desk and looks up from his glasses with skepticism that falls somewhere between Zayner’s zeal for DIY science and Newman’s objection to it. The Director of Stanford’s Center for Law and the Biosciences admits, time and time again, that he isn’t against things like biohacking — he’s just nervous about it and thinks it must be regulated.

“Just because you can’t predict it perfectly doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.”

“I’m worried about the malevolent uses,” Greely says. “I think we all are. But I’m also worried about the inadvertent side effects of well-intentioned uses.”

Everyone has E. Coli and although it’s often benign, there are dangerous strains. Scientists have mapped the genomes of both. Greely thinks it’s conceivable that a maleficent biohacker could obtain an E. coli sample — “Anyone with access to a toilet has access to a sample of E. coli.” — and make the necessary genetic modifications to turn that benign strain into a biological weapon. But that’s still pretty unlikely and would take some skill.

Instead, it’s the unbridled use of CRISPR that Greely thinks we should be most cautious about.

Zayner, meanwhile, estimates both of these risks are nominal. “It would take significant skill to turn this bacteria or yeast into a hazardous thing,” he says. And he likens the chance of accidentally creating a disruptive organism to the chance of accidentally making a bomb from computer parts.

Greely still isn’t sure. “New life forms are highly unpredictable in new environments,” he says, “which is partially an argument against my side because it means you can’t regulate it well, since you can’t predict it. But just because you can’t predict it perfectly doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.”

What might regulation look like?

Greely offers a few starting points to consider for regulation. First, regulators need to know who’s conducting the experiments and how, so DIY scientists should need to register and follow safe lab practices, he says. If and when a new organism is engineered — no matter how seemingly benign — an expert should examine it to determine any potential risk. And regulators must have a plan to follow up and control the organism if things get out of hand. Consider a genetic “kill switch,” which can cause synthetic organisms to die in out-of-the-lab circumstances.

“It will be a tricky regulatory scheme but I think those are good starting points,” Greely says.

To be sure, Zayner isn’t anti-regulation. But, while the government takes its time weighing options, he intends to carry on with his experiments and help others do so, too. The ODIN currently consults on CRISPR projects for institutions like Princeton, the University of Washington, and the University of Chicago — Zayner and Newman’s alma mater.

“You know, we see science in the media and they say it will be out for public use in 20 years of something.,” he says. “That always disappointed me. I’m like, Fuck that man, I want to work with stuff now!

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Dyllan Furness
Dyllan Furness is a freelance writer from Florida. He covers strange science and emerging tech for Digital Trends, focusing…
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