Genetically Engineering Yourself Sounds Like A Horrible Idea—But This Guy Is Doing It Anyway


Publish Date:
November 29, 2017
  • Brown, Kristen V.
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Josiah Zayner took a swig from his beer and squinted into the spotlight. He was already kind of drunk. He also hadn’t bothered to write a speech. Tattooed and heavily pierced with a shock of blue-gray hair, he shuffled around uneasily on stage. But 150-odd people had flown in from around the country to hear him speak—the mad pirate-king of biotech.

“It all is coming from my heart,” he said, choking up a little. “Everything you’re going to hear today is me to the core.”

Shock at what a self-taught scientist can accomplish with just a few hundred dollars of lab equipment has caused some to wonder whether DIY biology should require licensing and regulation, or perhaps be stopped altogether. Zayner has welcomed the discussion. At the second installation of his biohacker conference this summer, Zayner invited Stanford biosecurity expert Megan Palmer to give a talk on biohacking safely and scheduled a discussion between a prominent biohacker named David Ishee and Stanford bioethicist Hank Greely (disclosure: I moderated that discussion).

Greely told me later via email that he found Zayner “surprisingly interesting and enjoyable to talk with—and surprisingly reasonable. Ish.”

Zayner’s willingness to engage has gradually won over many of his critics, at least in part. Still, said Greely, he thinks Zayner’s commitment to DIY science is fundamentally misguided, both because DIY bio is “unlikely to become important” and because if it did, it is “likely to cause more harm than good.”

“I could be wrong, he could be right, but my hope is that his strong and subtle mind will eventually become less attached to DIY and instead turn to designing an ecosystem for bioscience development that is safer than DIY, but more democratic and open than the status quo,” Greely said.

He added: “I’d much rather be working with him than against him.”

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