A NASA Scientist Is Behind the 'My DNA Was Planted' Viral Craigslist Ad

Someday criminals may be able to genetically engineer their guilt away.

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Apr 14 2015, 2:30pm

​Image: ​Tony Webster/Flickr

​A Craigslist ad thoug​ht to be covert advertising or "viral marketing for the upcoming Fantastic Four movie" is actually an experimental post that evolved into a form of performance art, according to the NASA scientist who created it.

The listing, called "Being Framed Need Genetic Engineering Help," was posted from the perspective of a billionaire in trouble on San Francisco's "creative gigs" page on Wednesday. 

The author was purportedly seeking someone with skills in DNA forensics, robotics, and coding to help hack his genes to avoid being matched with DNA planted at the scene of a crime. The listing also had physical requirements for "custom built suit," which led some to think it was related to an action hero movie.

As it gained t​raction online, the general consensus was that it may be a viral campaign. But Josiah Zayner, the bioengineering scientist and research fellow at NASA Ames Research Center who created it, said it is just one of ​his forays into "speculative science."

"I was thinking, if somebody was accused of the crime, how could they fake out a DNA test?" he said.

The answer, he thought, would be in CRISPR-Cas9, a genet​ic engineering system used to edit specific pieces of the genome. Someone who knows their DNA was found at the scene of a crime, whether it was planted or not, could use the technology to make sure their cheek swab wouldn't be a match.

"What you would do is edit the 10-20 loci police usually look at to determine DNA match and change them to something else," Zayner said. "Because it's your cheek cells, and your cheek cells die and replicate, the genetic changes wouldn't be permanent, they'd just be changed for that period of time."

He said few people, including the several media o​utlets that picked​ up the story, understood his purpose, which was to get people thinking about whether criminals will someday be able to genetically engineer themselves out of a guilty verdict.

"Imagine if a person goes to argue a case and somebody says, 'This person had DNA at the scene of the crime,'" he said. "One could say, 'we don't know the genetics weren't engineered.' It's totally going to be a weird future."

He said just as fingerprints have been shown to be less reliable proof of a crime than once thought, DNA evidence may fall by the wayside someday, too.

Although the ad was not technically real, Zayner got a variety of responses, including some actual resumes and applications.

"I started continuing it, and sending people weird questions to see how they respond further to the performance," Zayner said. "It's almost like people want this to be real, they are almost hoping there might be a billionaire on the other side of this email."

"I was thinking, if somebody was accused of the crime, how could they fake out a DNA test?"

Some people who replied were incredulous. "you're a billionaire . . .? are you building a game ? or are you serious about : being Framed ? why the code in python ?" one person wrote. "I think you have gone a bit mad," another said.

"Very funny, Elon," one person replied, referring to the inventor and entrepreneur Elon Musk. Zayner also received a reply from someone claiming to be a Cornell professor who was apparently in on the joke, and offered his services.

"I have over 13 years of experience in genetic engineering, including CRISPR (I know, you might say, crispr was only discovered a year ago, but we can chat about it privately), over 30 years of experience fighting Ukrainian mafia, and I was building robots since the age of 6," he wrote.

At the end of the day, Zayner just wanted to show that in a future where genetic engineering is commonplace, these fantastical ideas could really come to fruition.

"It's sad, the science kind of got lost a little bit in it," he said. "No, this isn't a joke, it's not a plot for the next Iron Man movie, it's an actual possibility."

Zayner said one woman who sent in her resume had all of the requirements listed on the ad, all the way down to the physical specifications like height. He said this left him wondering what to do next.

"If I were the billionaire, she would get the interview––I don't know if I should interview the her, or if there should be a prize," he said. "I've been trying to figure out, how does it end?"

It's unclear if there's a job in store for this top contender, but if a real San Francisco billionaire is ever targeted by a "Doctor who is Doomed," there are a handful of scientists apparently ready to help.