I never thought I’d order live human kidney cells to my address, but that all changed when I found out about biohacker Jo Zayner’s at-home genetic engineering class. You may know Jo Zayner, a “biohacker” who has been in the vanguard of scientific self-experimentation for years, from their role in Netflix’s 2019 docuseries Unnatural Selection. The series shows Zayner attempting to edit their DNA by injecting themselves with CRISPR, a gene-editing technology. The action inspired a firestorm of criticism.
Zayner is also known for a variety of other bold moves, such as claiming to create a DIY at-home COVID vaccine in 2020 and executing their own fecal microbiome transplant.An avid proponent of increasing access to CRISPR technology, Jo opened a genetic engineering education company called The ODIN. The company sells kits and classes such as “Human Tissue Engineering” and “DIY Bacterial Gene Engineering CRISPR Kit.” Human Tissue Culture and Engineering 201, the class I took, intends to teach students how to edit DNA through an experiment: making HEK (Human Embryonic Kidney) 293 cells resistant to antibiotics by inserting a specific gene into their DNA. Though I was unsure of my take on Jo’s controversial biohacking escapades—I’m no expert—I found the prospect of playing with live, editable kidney cells that come in the mail too intriguing to pass up. Plus, I felt that editing a tiny swab of cells was inconsequential. It seemed innocent enough.
My kit, which costs about $800, arrived a few days before the class started. It came with amateur science gear, a “Biohacking is Not a Crime” sticker, the kidney cells I’d been dreaming of, and vials of brightly-colored liquids intended for the DNA-editing endeavor. Soon after, I joined the online class. Jo and their partners crushed Red Bull and cracked jokes about kidney monsters growing out of our sinks. I laughed along, pipette in hand, but I didn’t know whether to feel like a mad scientist or a baby playing with a match and gasoline.
To edit the genome of kidney cells, students use pipettes to add a variety of liquids with funky names to the cells. One of them was a plasmid containing the DNA coding for an antibiotic-resistance gene. The other liquids were involved in, as I like to think about it, shoving the DNA into the cells. I’d be lying if I said the experiment didn’t feel like following a cookbook recipe at times. Lots of pausing, rewinding, and brow-furrowing went on. Despite my best efforts, my gene-editing experiment failed in the end. Something sinister gnawed at me. I began to wonder: if I took similar steps on myself, would I be able to change my DNA? And if I messed up, as I did in this experiment—I cut myself off there. That’s a scary thought.The class by no means instructs its students to use their new knowledge to edit their own DNA—but could they? “If you can do experiments on human cells, you can do experiments on humans generally,” Zayner said. “Right now, if you wanted to, you can buy any of the material you need. It’s the same material used in clinical trials, the same material that’s used by drug companies. [You can] buy it and use it to genetically modify yourself” by claiming to order it for “research purposes,” Zayner explained.
“We’re entering an age of humanity where we’re not just taking drugs anymore”
Zayner suggested I experiment on mice first and told me where I could purchase the material. “That’s kind of what the class is for. Democratize the tech so that more people are doing this stuff.” I found my conversation with Zayner adrenalizing. But even if I wanted to edit myself, ignorant of any risk, I wouldn’t know where to start. For starters, I’d need to know which gene (or genes) to edit and how to safely and effectively administer the material. These questions likely make gene editing out of reach for most who would attempt it. The answers aren’t exactly Google-able. According to scientists at the FDA, even if someone like Zayner designed an at-home gene therapy perfectly, risks exist. Some say CRISPR therapies could cause cancer or cause off-target (unintended) effects. Some critics are even worried about the risks of environmental degradation, eugenics, and bioterrorism. Others disagree, like Dr. David Largaespada, a genetic engineering expert from the University of Minnesota.“Put in perspective, compared to the risks of driving cars, taking medications, using drugs, and any other risks we accept, I think they are minimal, both to individuals and society,” he said. “Instead, the benefits are great. We've not had any real accident from lay people using CRISPR—it's all hypothetical risks so far. People might harm themselves with CRISPR, might create a pest dangerous to agriculture or the environment, or some other problem. But, I consider it unlikely at present.” In medical contexts, CRISPR is showing early signs of being far more powerful for use in adult patients than previous generations of gene therapy and genetic modification tools. But experts say that, at the moment, there remain limitations to using CRISPR to fundamentally change a living human. While it can be used to modify and "fix" a diseased cell, for example, there's currently no way to ensure that the modified cells will replicate enough to overtake the existing, unmodified ones. Scientists are optimistic, though, that these limitations will be overcome.Gene editing tools are accessible, as Zayner’s DIY kit and classes show, but they haven’t been brought to market yet. With this information comes a wave of questions I can’t answer. Should those with life-threatening diseases be allowed to attempt to fix themselves? Would you edit high-stakes diseases out of your genome—or simply change something about yourself—knowing full well that you could face severe consequences? And should that risk be yours to take?“We’re entering an age of humanity where we’re not just taking drugs anymore… we’re actually modifying human genetics to solve our medical issues,” Zayner explained. “Who do you want in control of that genetic future? We need to distribute this so that people have access to it.”