The potential dangers of DIY DNA kits

The potential dangers of DIY DNA kits

Just came across an article in the San Jose Mercury News, Bay Area biohacker tells you how to edit your DNA. Does that make him a criminal?

The piece looks at Josiah Zayner's genetic engineering company, which creates homebrew DNA kits and tools for individuals to make unique, unsable organisms at home or in a lab. Excerpt:

The state of California is investigating Zayner, a popular biohacker and provocateur, for practicing medicine without a license, according to a stern letter issued this month by the California Department of Consumer Affairs. ...

Zayner, whose company sells CRISPR gene-editing kits to the public and is advised by prominent Harvard geneticist George Church, is stunned by the news and says he’ll fight the allegation. ...

Zayner takes his inspiration from the early days of personal computing, when the Homebrew Computer Club and other hobbyists shared now-legendary ideas and experiments.

The University of Chicago-educated molecular biophysicist worked for Mountain View’s NASA Ames Space Synthetic Biology program for two years, where he engineered bacteria that could help transform Mars into a planet suitable for human life.

Since 2016, he’s been focused on his company, The Odin. He says his goal is to promote do-it-yourself biology in high school classrooms around the globe. ...

His online company was the first to market a simplified version of the CRISPR tool to the masses — a project that, for now, is more provocative than perilous. The kit has limited applications. Most scientists would agree that his altered bacteria and yeast are quite harmless, leading brief and fairly dull lives. They can’t do much except change color, fragrance or live in inhospitable places.

His $299 frog-editing kit injects a gene-editing liquid into a tree frog’s back, causing the amphibian to double in size in four to five weeks. It doesn’t alter future generations; when the frog dies, so does the experiment.

At an October 2017 conference called SynBioBeta, a synthetic biology industry meeting held in San Francisco, he filled a syringe with gene-editing DNA and injected it into his left arm.

To a round of applause, then shared on YouTube, Zayner said, “This will modify my muscle genes to give me bigger muscles.”

A few years ago I may have been more optimistic about the possible upsides of homebrew microbiology. But one mistake or intentional act of malice could create unforeseen consequences with wide-ranging damage or even death. The constraints contained in the CRISPR kit described in the article seem thoughtful, and the state's threatened actions against Zayner seem overwrought. Still, I worry about where this will lead.

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