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“A biohacker for me is somebody who is doing something clever or interesting in biology,” says Josiah Zayner, a molecular biophysicist who runs The ODIN, a company that sells do-it-yourself genetic engineering kits. “They’re usually these people that have been fucked by the system who are trying to unfuck themselves.”
Zayner is one of the leading figures in the biohacking movement and is the main organizer of the BioHack the Planet Conference, a yearly gathering of citizen scientists. This year, over 100 members of the biohacking community met in Oakland, California to discuss a wide array of issues from at-home genetic engineering to questions on bioethics.
Biohackers have often been compared to computer hackers of the 1980s, but instead of breaking into and manipulating information technology systems, they’re focused on hacking living organisms with the hopes of curing illnesses and in some cases obtaining superhuman powers.
Their shared mission is to put this technology into the hands of as many people as possible.
“People should be able to use all the technologies that science develops,” says Zayner. “It shouldn’t just be patented and given to companies or exclusively given to certain people.”
These do-it-yourself biologists say the democratization of science has given them the freedom to do work on projects that are often ignored by larger institutions. They’re using gene editing technologies like CRISPR to create personalized treatments for those suffering from rare diseases or cancer, reverse engineering pharmaceuticals like Epi-Pens so people can make their own medicine at home, and even creating glow in the dark beer.
“I think this is the most exciting time thus far in the history of the world to be alive with respect to what we can and will do with life forms,” says Hank Greely, the director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University.
But breakthroughs in the world of biohacking are drawing more scrutiny from federal regulators. Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration began placing restrictions on non-human genetic modifications and declared that genetically edited animals must be classified as drugs. This gives the agency broad authority over a number of do-it-yourself genetics tests and requires experiments involving animals to go through the same vetting process as a new drug.
“I guess they couldn’t call them cosmetics and they couldn’t call them foods, so they’re like dogs are drugs,” states David Ishee, a Mississippi canine breeder who is working on editing out genetic diseases in dogs. “Everybody’s worried about what someone could do with this technology and nobody seems to care about the damage that not doing it will cause because these animals are dying.”
Increasing regulation could undermine biohacking breakthroughs for humans as well.
“I’m a huge fan of deregulation because I believe in the inherent goodness of capitalism,” says Zayner. “Stuff doesn’t progress unless people do useful things with it.”
Produced by Alexis Garcia and Justin Monticello. Camera by Garcia, Monticello, and Zach Weissmueller.
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