What Happens If Someone Uses This DIY Gene Hacking Kit to Make Mutant Bacteria?
As the DIY bio movement grows, questions have been raised about the consequences of bringing the technology to all.
Image: Josiah Zayner/YouTube
The revolutionary gene-editing technology CRISPR/Cas9 has the potential to eradicate disease or invite a new wave of eugenics, depending on who you ask. Now, through an Indiegogo campaign, anyone can purchase their own kit to try the science themselves at home.
The campaign, called "DIY CRISPR Kits, Learn Modern Science By Doing" was started by Josiah Zayner, a synthetic biologist and research fellow at NASA Ames Research Center. It had raised $31,365 at the time of writing, three times its funding goal.
For a donation of $130 or more, backers are promised a kit that includes "everything you need to make precision genome edits in bacteria": a laboratory grade pipette, media and plates; bacteria and DNA; and detailed written and video instructions. For a donation of $160, you can edit the genome of yeast. And for $5,000, Zayner will work with you to create "a unique desired trait for your own, personal, original, unique, genetically engineered organism."
The kits will be distributed over the next year, Zayner said. "Everyone will be able to use these kits," he wrote on the campaign page. "I believe that the only way that this works is if science is democratized so everyone has access."
The use of CRISPR/Cas9 is becoming a contentious topic, however. The technique has the potential to prevent diseases like Alzheimer's and HIV and to stop the spread diseases like dengue and malaria, but some scientists are worried that modifying the genome in a way that passes to the next generation could cause unintended, irreversible mutations.
CRISPR/Cas9 could also theoretically be used to modify embryos and create what some have billed as biologically superior super humans, raising ethical concerns that are still playing out.
The National Institutes of Health announced in April that it will not fund any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos due to safety and ethical concerns. In March, a group of scientists published an editorial in March in Nature calling for a moratorium on research using the technique to modify human reproductive cells, or making genetic changes that could then be inherited. And earlier this month, the world's leading geneticists and bioethicists gathered together in Washington, DC to debate its use on human beings, creating guidelines that CRISPR/Cas9 should not be used on human germlines.
The kits won't going to allow people to genetically modify humans, but Zayner is still getting some heat for the project. One medical doctor emailed him with "grave concerns" about putting the technology in the hands of lay people.
"Reprogramming bacteria or fungi could have serious ramifications, such as inadvertent or intended multi-drug resistance, faster multiplication, toxin production, and persisting potency when aerosolized," the doctor wrote.
"There is no law or anything that says you wouldn't be able to do this at your house, it's the release component that would trigger regulation."
Another noted that he would likely be unable to distribute it to other countries due to strict regulations surrounding genetic experiments: "Great idea however I'm just giving you the heads up that it would be highly illegal to carry out this kind of work at home in Australia," he wrote.
Zayner does note on his page to "please check with local laws before ordering," but said the US government has surprisingly few laws surrounding biohacking, including do-it-yourself CRISPR/Cas9 technology.
"It isn't unsafe, and the great thing is the US government understands this," Zayner said. "They are really interested in people innovating around genetic engineering, so there are not many laws that govern genetic engineering and research at home."
Zayner's project isn't the first crowdfunded initiative to try to put synthetic biology in the hands of everyday people. Just this month, an artist launched a crowdfunding campaign to engineer DIY gender hormone producing tobacco plants. Canadian startup Synbiota launched a campaign earlier this year that allows supporters to genetically engineer microorganisms at home using its DNA Tinker kits.
There is no legal framework surrounding this at-home work, unless it results in a product to be distributed, said Todd Kuiken, a senior program associate with the Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
"Who actually uses kits like these and what they are using them for will determine if any of these products they make would be regulated or not," he said. "There is no law or anything that says you wouldn't be able to do this at your house, it's the release component that would trigger regulation."
So, if someone purchases one of these kits and creates a modified plant or insect with the intent of distributing it, they would find themselves having to go through the same legal framework as actual companies like Monsanto. But tinkering around with biology in your own home just for the fun of it is perfectly legal.
Kuiken said that raises some concerns, especially when CRISPR/Cas9 is involved.
"There is a perception that it's very simple, but it's not a shake and bake recipe, there is still a sophistication level behind it that people are going to need to know," he said. "I think people are throwing around this 'easy-to-use' word a little too lightly in terms of how easy it actually is to use in a rudimentary at home kind of lab."
As these technologies become more accessible, who, if anyone, has the responsibility to regulate them? Kuiken said it might be time for some of the crowdsourcing apps that distribute them to consider their roles.
"We have been asking what the responsibility of these crowd funding campaigns should have, and I think when you start talking about tech like CRISPR/Cas9, these questions can be asked," he said. "It is still an open question, and I don't think anyone has an answer on it."
Certainly some crowdfunding companies are aware of safety concerns. In 2013, Kickstarter announced it would no longer allow campaigns that gave away genetically modified organisms as rewards to online backers. Zayner said he took that into account when choosing Indiegogo instead, as one of his own projects was rejected by Kickstarter in the past. Similarly, Ryan Hammond, the artist behind the GMO tobacco plants, said he chose to crowdfund on his own site out of concern that Kickstarter wouldn't allow him to fundraise there.
Zayner said these policies come from a lack of understanding of GMOs.
"I don't know why Kickstarter is doing this," he said. "You cannot outlaw GMOs—anyone who is selling food is selling GMOs, it doesn't really make sense. It seems like it's just a construct to appease the masses."
Of course, CRISPR/Cas9 brings on another level of scrutiny, but Zayner said he believes the safety concerns surrounding the technology are largely overblown, particularly when it comes to the editing of yeast and bacteria.
"I think many people watch too many movies and they're very misinformed," he said. "They send me typical apocalypse stuff, thinking it's going to create a virus that will wipe out everybody, even though the kit has nothing to do with viruses."
As the drama surrounding CRISPR/Cas9 continues on an international scale, crowdfunding platforms may have to determine their responsibility to regulate at-home experiments. In the meantime, if you want to buy your own CRISPR/Cas9 kit from Zayner, the campaign is in its final hours. Just make sure you check your local laws on gene editing first.