The biohacker who edited his own genes

Self-experimentation still happens today - and biohackers like Josiah Zayner are pushing its limits...
09 February 2021

Interview with 

Josiah Zayner

Josiah_Zayner

Biohacker Josiah Zayner.

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Self-experimentation still happens today, and depending on your definition, it happens a lot - everything from off-the-record sanity checks in medical labs, to your average person trying out a new diet or drug! One person who’s testing the limits of what’s possible here is biohacker Josiah Zayner, who joined Chris Smith to explain what he does...

Josiah - A biohacker is just somebody who does science outside a traditional environment. Generally, I like to think of us as the rogues and the renegades of the scientific community.

Chris - But you are a traditional scientist as well; I mean you've been to university, you've done very high level training.

Josiah - Yeah, so I have a PhD and I was a scientist at NASA before I decided that the traditional scientific environment lacks the risk-taking that needs to be done to actually push science forward.

Chris - Speaking of which, are you supposed to be the first person who has actually done gene editing with this technology, CRISPR, on themselves?

Josiah - I am the first person to use CRISPR. CRISPR is this new modern gene editing technology that allows basically anybody to edit genes in most any organism inexpensively and fast. And for me, trying to get this technology to be used in humans so that we can push ahead and cure diseases is something that was big on my mind.

Chris - And what did you do to yourself?

Josiah - I injected myself with some DNA that was meant to modify the genes in my muscles, supposedly to give me bigger muscles. Now I wasn't able to actually detect that the gene editing worked, but the idea was that this is safe for humans, it's possible, and we should go forward.

Chris - I'm just looking at your picture on your Wikipedia page - was your hair that colour before you did CRISPR on yourself? Hopefully it was!

Josiah - Actually, I think the gene editing caused me to have different colour hair, but don't tell anybody; they'll try to buy it off me!

Chris - But talking of things that go funny colours, because you have taken this beyond just doing things that maybe some would regard as a bit outlandish, like self-inflicted gene editing... you have actually brewed up glowing green beers, haven't you?

Josiah - Yeah. So we are trying to make gene editing accessible and available to everybody. I think genetic engineering is one of the most powerful technologies we have. So making it so people can experience it in their everyday life, like editing yeast so they can change colour, or fluoresce - like glow in the dark. Or we've also worked on growing up chicken cells in petri dishes, and making like a chicken nugget grown in the lab. So there's a lot of science I think that people can do and experience in their everyday life that's amazing.

Chris - Did the beer actually glow?

Josiah - Yeah, it did. You have to keep the yeast in there because the yeast contained the glowing protein, but it does glow.

Chris - There are some cloudy beers where they do that on purpose so I could see that working. It got you into trouble though, didn't it? The FDA, the organisation that regulates food and drugs in America, had something to say about you doing that.

Josiah - Yeah, the FDA, the California Department of Public Health, and the state of California... everybody comes after me. I think when you're working with new technologies and pushing boundaries, people don't understand it completely. And so you get pushback from it. But to this date I'm talking to you not from jail so I think things are still pretty good.

Chris - Are you talking to me from the toilet though, because you also dabbled in doing a "trans-poosion"; you literally changed all of your bacteria in your intestines at one point, didn't you?

Josiah - Yeah. I had gut distress and IBS, and was suffering from gut issues, and I thought that maybe I could take matters into my own hands, because a lot of times the medical doctors would just tell me "oh, you're stressed out. Don't be stressed, exercise". And you're like, “how am I supposed to not be stressed? I don't get that!” And so I took faeces from a healthy donor and transplanted it into my body. Barry Marshall said the bacteria didn't taste that bad - eating faeces is a whole other story!

Chris - Well they say it's a crap-sule that you have to swallow, but maybe that's a story for another show. But look, the key thing is this is a show about self-experimentation. So why are you doing this? And why are you using yourself to do these things on?

Josiah - It gives me the ability to do things I normally wouldn't be able to do because experimenting on other people, especially things that are risky, I think is unethical to me.

Chris - You've also made a COVID vaccine. You quite famously teamed up with a bunch of others and you have made a COVID vaccine that you have self administered. Has it worked?

Josiah - Yeah. So we were able to detect neutralising antibodies in our blood to the protein that the virus makes. Whether it works or not is a very complicated question that would probably require a big clinical trial. But for all intents and purposes, we saw results that were very positive.

Chris - I just want to finish by asking you, really, whether you think this is responsible? Because obviously there are some pretty powerful things we can do in a garden shed with molecular biology these days. Do you think what you're doing is encouraging people to perhaps go beyond what's responsible and sensible?

Josiah - I could think there couldn't be something that was more responsible. Genetic engineering is the most powerful technology we have. We can literally engineer self-replicating matter. And to give that power to very few people in universities and big companies and to not let the public experience this technology I think is wrong. So I think the greatest responsibility I have is to allow people to use this technology.

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