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Dr Josiah Zayner is not averse to rocking the boat. The self-described biohacker and ‘mad pirate king of biotech’ has an impressive rap sheet of doing science differently.
Zayner got into trouble with the FDA after his company sold kits that allowed customers to brew their own glow-in-the-dark beer with genetically modified fluorescent yeast. He sterilised his entire body and carried out a faecal transplant on himself, using pills made from the faeces of a friend in order to replace his entire microbiome.
Experimenting on oneself is not a new concept to the sciences. Professor Barry James Marshall won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on peptic ulcers, part of his investigations involving drinking a broth containing the bacteria that he hypothesised caused them.
One of the differences between Professor Barry James Marshall and Dr Josiah Zayner is that the former operates within the scientific system and publishes his findings in scientific journals, whereas the latter works out of his kitchen and eschews traditional published scientific literature. Critics of Josiah may consider him a scientific anarchist, his supporters applaud his desire to bring science to the masses. Even within the biohacker community he is a divisive figure. Some celebrate his endeavours, others are concerned that his sometimes-cavalier attitude shines a negative light on the entire community. What many agree on is that he raises important questions about the accessibility of science, and how results are disseminated.
For a man notorious for not playing by the rules, Josiah had a fairly typical start to his scientific career. He has a Masters in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the Appalachian State University, and a PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics from the University of Chicago. To top it off, he was invited to become a Research Fellow for NASA, to work within their synthetic biology programme to bioengineer bacteria that may someday be used in the future to terraform Mars. He left NASA after two years, citing not being able to deal with how everything was run, and the suspicion that they also did not know how to deal with him.
It was on leaving NASA that Josiah started up his company The Odin, which sells supplies and genetic engineering kits for anyone to use within the comfort of their own home.
The kits have caused controversy, raising questions as to whether powerful genetic engineering tools should be accessible by anyone. While most people want to do fun and harmless things with it, there are concerns as to what those with less honest intentions could accomplish.
Having Professor George Church involved as a business and science advisor may give The Odin some credibility. Church is a pioneer in the realms of synthetic biology and personal genomics, and is not afraid to shy away from big ideas. In 2015 his research team at Harvard used CRISPR-Cas9 to insert DNA from frozen woolly mammoth samples into the genome of an elephant.
What is CRISPR-Cas9?
CRISPR-Cas9 is a genome editing tool adapted from bacterial repair systems. It uses the Cas9 enzyme to cut targeted locations in the DNA of the target organism. Once the DNA has been cut, the cell recognises the DNA damage and goes to repair the cut, scientists can manipulate the DNA repair machinery in order to introduce changes to the genome at the location targeted by Cas9.
The most recent addition to the kits offered by the Odin is a frog genetic engineering kit, at a price of $399.99. The kit description describes it as a teaching tool containing all of the frogs, materials, and instructions required to genetically modify the frogs within a home environment. The process involves carrying out experiments to treat the frogs with a growth factor that increases the production of growth hormones. Simply put, treated frogs should weigh more than untreated frogs.
This is the first product offered by Odin which involves the use of live animals, which of course raises many ethical and legal questions. From a welfare stand point, as it stands in the USA, the Animal Welfare Act exempts amphibians, as they are cold blooded animals. The legal grey area comes into play with animals with altered DNA, not to mention whether it should be permitted from an ethical standpoint. For now, the kit remains listed on the website, though kits are not expected to begin shipping until October. For now, maverick science remains a possibility.