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CRISPR for the Masses


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On a Friday night last summer, a dad and his 7-year-old son sat on beanbag chairs in their basement in Coatesville, PA; a white box rested on the floor between them. The dad sliced the box open with a pair of scissors, and asked, “What do you think is in here?”

The son peeked in, carefully pulled out an orange microcentrifuge tube rack and turned it around, “It has so many holes!” They cautiously took out and examined Petri dishes, a professional lab-grade pipette, LB agar, E. coli, Cas9 and tracrRNA plasmid, and numerous other ingredients and equipment. They spent the rest of the weekend making agar plates, making competent bacterial cells for transformation, and using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit the genome of E. coli to become resistant to streptomycin, all in their basement. By Sunday, small white dots on the streptomycin agar plates rewarded their curiosity and persistence.

This father had ordered a $150 home CRISPR kit from a company called The Open Discovery Institute (The ODIN). His son loves biology, and the father was looking for real, hands-on science experiments to capture his excitement. The company has sold thousands of kits, mostly to regular people curious about science and excited about CRISPR who perform experiments in their garages, basements, or spare rooms; the remainder of the kits go to high school science classes, community college biology labs, and universities who use the kits in their classes.

The company’s owner and other so-called “biohackers” believe science should be within everyone’s reach. But is unfettered use by untrained civilians of a new, powerful gene editing tool a safe path forward for molecular biology?

Mail-Order Science

The ODIN’s creator, Josiah Zayner was a postdoc at NASA when he first started thinking about do-it-yourself biology. Zayner earned a PhD from the University of Chicago in biochemistry and molecular biophysics, but became disillusioned with government and academia-based research. “I wanted to try to figure out a way that science could get done outside a traditional environment,” said Zayner. “One of those ways was to encourage people to get involved in science in their home, in their garage, or whatever. CRISPR was this new technology that people thought was exciting and cool, and so I wanted to figure out a way to make it accessible.”

The CRISPR-Cas9 system “makes genome engineering even easier, and in doing so opens it up to many more stakeholders,” wrote CRISPR developer Jennifer Doudna from the University of California, Berkeley in Nature in December 2015. Using crowdfunding, Zayner raised $71,036 by December 2015 and created The ODIN. The ODIN now sells genetic engineering kits, such as the CRISPR kit, that contain everything one needs to perform a sample experiment. With a full-time staff of four, Zayner and his team make the components of the kit or purchase them from overseas wholesale manufacturers; they then assemble the boxes in Zayner’s Palo Alto garage and mail them to customers. At $150, his kit is far cheaper than the cost of buying all the CRISPR components for a university lab. “The price of scientific supplies is marked up so high, and academics are just willing to pay it because usually it’s not their money, it’s grant money,” said Zayner. “They pay ridiculous prices for stuff that should be dirt cheap.”

Some of the kits go to community labs, where hobbyist or amateur scientists share common lab space and equipment to work on projects; there are at least 36 biohacker spaces in the US, everywhere from Boston, MA to Cheyenne, WY. Biohacker spaces often have their own code of ethics that includes adopting safe practices, respecting the environment, and only using biotechnology for peaceful purposes; they are also often assisted by scientists from a nearby university.

But most kits go to individuals; Zayner is in contact with 10%-15% of the people who buy his kits, and he said most stick to the sample experiment.

Dangers of Amateur Gene Editing?

But what if they don’t? Fears prevail that kits like these could be used for more nefarious purposes than making E. coli resistant to streptomycin or that inexperienced users could even hurt themselves. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics in the UK recently published a report called Genome Editing: An Ethical Review that touched on genome editing as a hobby for non-scientists.

“The comparatively low cost and ease of use of the CRISPR-Cas9 system has made it feasible for a greater range of users, beyond those who would ordinarily make use of the techniques of molecular biology,” the paper stated. These include “‘DIY’ or ‘garage’ biologists, ‘biohackers,’ and enthusiastic amateurs who are either interested in learning about or experiencing microbiological techniques, carrying out informal research, or making biological products.”

Peter Mills, Assistant Director of the Council, said of amateur use of CRISPR-Cas9, “There’s a kind of inevitability about it. Whether or not it’s a good thing depends really on how those kits get used and what the consequences, both intended and unintended, of their use might be. They may be doing valuable research in the way that Victorian polymaths did research, but I think the likelihood of that is very small, and the risk that they would get something that is less benign and less beneficial is comparatively high.”

Laboratory standards in professional labs serve a serious purpose: in part, they help minimize risk, while also making it more likely that the experiment will be effective. Mills said working in a community lab space with a clear code of ethics and a trained scientist mentor is preferable to (and safer than) home practitioners working solo.

But Zayner believes the concrete benefits of the kit outweigh any possible risk. A person might be able to do other, more complicated experiments with the kit, but such experiments require in-depth knowledge of molecular biology. In addition, the bacteria are non-pathogenic, so “there really is no need for regulation regarding these organisms, because the possibility of their causing harm in any way is just kind of absurd or ridiculous,” he said. “There’s this fear because it’s new technology, and people imagine what might happen with it. If there’s anybody who people should be afraid of using genetic engineering, it’s probably not biohackers or terrorists, it’s the government. They’re the ones who have these labs necessary to do it.”

We, the Biohackers

Zayner and other biohackers believe democratizing science is the bigger goal. “There’s this big block between what scientists have access to and what the public has access to, even though the majority of science is publicly funded, or funded by the government,” said Zayner. “The general public doesn’t have access to any of the protocols, techniques, materials that scientists who are paid by the government, who are paid by university students, have access to.”

The father and son team, for one, are hooked: for their next project, they hope to buy another ODIN kit and use their newfound microbiology skills to turn yeast fluorescent green--all in their basement.

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