When former NASA scientist Josiah Zayner pulled out a syringe during a genetic engineering workshop last October and injected himself with a gene editing enzyme, he became the first person to try to hack his own genome – and a pioneer in the biohacking movement.
Biohackers believe that they have the right to do whatever they wish with their own bodies, including manipulating genes to enhance or diminish character traits. We are beyond just accepting the genes that biology has given us, and with an increasing number of tools available for easy genetic modification, this is no longer as high-tech as it may sound. Via his website, The Odin, Zayner distributes complete laboratory kits for gene modification experiments to be performed at your own kitchen table. He also confirmed in an interview with The Guardian that both custom DNA material and gene sequencing is readily available to everyone online nowadays.
Zayner’s injection allegedly contained the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing system, a tool which has gained much publicity in recent years due to its accurate ability to cut out specific genes from human DNA while leaving the remaining DNA intact. A lot of research has been invested in trying to work out whether this could be used to cure genetic disorders, such as Huntington’s disease, by simply removing or replacing defective genes. CRISPR-based treatments have also shown promising results for interfering with the growth of cancer cells, and for eliminating HIV infection in several animal models.
The technique is derived from the surprisingly advanced immune systems of bacteria. Even bacteria need to protect themselves against viral infections, and they do that using CRISPR DNA sequences and Cas enzymes. This method was hijacked and simplified by scientists to generate the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing system. The two main building blocks of the system is a Cas9 enzyme and a guide RNA. When injected into a host cell, the Cas9 enzyme is capable of accurately cutting the cell’s DNA strands. The guide RNA identifies the correct place in the DNA sequence at the gene of interest where Cas9 needs to cut.
Following a cleavage of DNA strands inherent repair mechanisms in the cell immediately take over to try to repair the break. This process is error-prone and often introduces a mutation in the DNA which effectively silences the gene of interest. Contrary to popular belief, it is thus the host cell itself that knocks out the gene, with just little help from the CRISPR. The great advantage of the system is that the guide RNA can be designed to bind to any DNA sequence, making highly specific targeting of virtually any gene possible.
In essence it’s like replacing one specific word in a sentence. Imagine you have the sentence “Peter Piper picked a pear”, but you want to adjust it to the more common version, “Peter Piper picked a pepper”. With earlier gene editing systems, you could delete “pear” or simply insert “pepper”, but neither would give the precise sentence you want. An extra perk of the CRISPR/Cas9 system is that, in addition to silencing a gene, it can also insert a new gene into the DNA – in other words, replacing “pear” with “pepper” to give you a meaningful sentence.
Zayner’s injection contained a CRISPR construct designed to target the myostatin gene. This gene encodes the myostatin protein which inhibits the growth of muscle cells. Silencing the gene would thus allow an enhanced growth of the muscle cells in Zayner’s arm, theoretically leading to a larger muscle mass. Zayner’s most recent report about the progress of his experiment was given in an interview with The Guardian in December, where he confirmed he had not yet observed any changes to his arm. He also added, “In similar experiments with animals, you only start to see results after four to six months of treatment. I would expect that the DNA in some of the cells of my arm has changed, but I am still working on developing assays to try and detect that”. The Gryphon has tried to contact Zayner for an up-to-date statement but received no further comment.
What is molecular biology coming to? People are afraid of AI and robots taking their jobs, Post Docs should be afraid of #Biohackers taking their jobs 😂 PCR Machine pipette and all the reagents to run your first experiments for $280.https://t.co/ooyDfRjcVZ pic.twitter.com/hSWOBRUGmU
— Josiah Zayner (@4LOVofScience) May 9, 2018
Although Zayner is an experienced biochemist, biohackers don’t need a science degree or the access to expensive facilities anymore. While in the 21st century gene editing per se is low-tech, much thanks to the development of the CRISPR/Cas9 system, the biggest challenge today is the moral and ethical concerns that we face when we’re in control of our own biology.
Images: Tavis Coburn (header), the-odin.com, Nature News/Carl Zimmer