How should we view biohackers and their DIY use of CRISPR outside of the traditional industry or academic lab environment?
Introduction to “Biohackers” and DIY CRISPR
Who are biohackers exactly?
They are people who “hack” their own biology by transforming their bodies through the insertion of technology or modification of their DNA. More rarely, biohackers hack other people’s bodies, but that could change and become more common.
In recent years, with the strides made in CRISPR technology, biohacking in genome modification has garnered much attention, leading to conflicting views of the gray area of what is scientifically acceptable and ethical.
Some DIY hackers like Josiah Zayner, the founder of The Odin, his biotechnology company that sells bacterial, yeast, and CRISPR kits online, have manually injected themselves with gene-editing substances. Rich Lee, another biohacker, self-performs body alteration (with a few programmed chips and magnets implanted into his body) and has also ventured into CRISPR usage.
DIY CRISPR Risks and Considerations
CRISPR is one of the most efficient and affordable tools to perform gene editing. These characteristics can act as a double-edged sword, especially in the sphere of DIY biology. The accessibility and manipulability of CRISPR move science forward, but also “raises the prospect of people with nefarious intent gaining access” (Duke SciPol). There is also the possibility of inexperienced buyers unknowingly editing subjects like plants or insects that turn to be harmful to the environment.
While practically speaking the application of CRISPR to actually heritably change “higher” organisms beyond microbes (although even some kinds of microbe editing could be dangerous) among less experienced users may generally be limited due to technical challenges, some biohackers are becoming more advanced in their technical know-how. Note that the DIY-biology community has started to think “proactively about the safety issues thrown up by biotechnology” (Nature). If you are interested in learning more about biohacking and this kind of technology, you might want to give the Netflix docuseries Unnatural Selection a try. See a review of this series by Dr. Knoepfler here: Unnatural Selection review: captivating mind-bender but needed more science. Now Netflix has a new fictional, techno-drama called Biohackers. See an image of the cast and the director further down in the post.
CRISPR and the Law
With the ethical issues of easily accessible DIY-CRISPR gaining more attention, government regulations have risen in recent years and things could rapidly become more complicated on that front. In 2019, a bill, turned into a law, signed by Governor Gavin Newson of California, targets CRISPR DIY kits and tools. The law and prohibits their sales, except if explicitly and visibly labeled with a warning that states “the kit is not for self-administration.” This law, which is the first to directly manage CRISPR usage, was drafted by Republican state senator Ling Ling Chang, a sponsor of several “bills whose topics range from hit-and-runs by drones to microchipping cats and dogs at animal shelters” (Technology Review). More states could follow suit.
Previously, in 2017, the FDA stated that CRISPR editing is considered gene therapy and is, therefore, under FDA regulation. Additionally, the sale of DIY gene editing kits for self-administration is against the law. However, it’s unclear what would happen moving forward if some biohackers don’t follow these rules and laws. The FDA and other authorities might be challenged on this front in coming years.
Conclusion and looking to the future
Since the DIY biology community emerged, the self-administration and sales of biological and genetic products have been subject to judgment by professionals, politicians, and authorities. Straying from formal, highly regulated lab environments and motivated by curiosity, DIY biologists have changed the notion of a typical lab and its procedures. This can accelerate science and discoveries. However, with the divergence from traditional laboratories, there must be precautions to ensure ethical and safe usage within the context of DIY experiments, particularly those that may be potentially hazardous to the biohacker, to other people they might biohack, or to the environment.
Specifically, because CRISPR is a powerful gene-editing technology, its use has been and should be closely regulated now and in the future. We can balance moving innovative gene-editing research forward in an efficient manner and doing it in an ethical way.