Innovation

DIY genetic engineering is about to explode

Implanting RFID chips under your skin is so 2017. Modifying your own DNA is where it's at now, and the ethical questions are only just beginning to be asked.

(image: Tomasz Wyszołmirski www.dabarti.com)

In 1974, the Altair 8800 microcomputer kicked off a revolution. The kit cost $439, or around $2,000 in today's money. Assembled, it cost about 40 percent more. For between $150 and $350 on top, depending on the version, you could add a programming language, Altair BASIC, from a newly-formed company called Micro-Soft.

In 2018, you can buy a "Genetic Engineering Home Lab Kit" for around $2,000. For beginners, $159 will get you a "DIY Bacterial Gene Engineering CRISPR Kit". It includes "everything you need to make precision genome edits in bacteria at home" for an example experiment, "allowing the bacteria to survive on Strep media which would normally prevent its growth". And there's more.

What could possibly go wrong?

Right now, getting into genetic engineering costs roughly the same as getting into computing did back in the 1970s. That means we're about to see a revolution in do-it-yourself genetic body modifications, according to biohacker Meow-Ludo Disco Gamma Meow-Meow, who launched BioFoundry, billed as Australia's first community lab for citizen scientists, in 2014.

"We're on the border of lots and lots of people doing self-experimentation using CRISPR," Meow-Meow told the linux.conf.au open-source software conference in Sydney last month.

"[It's a] really interesting Brave New World. This is kind of where biohacking is now," he said during his presentation.

By "self-experimentation", Meow-Meow does indeed mean people conducting genetic experiments on themselves. He sees this as a natural extension of the work of so-called "grinders", people like himself who have implanted computer chips and other technology into their own bodies.

In 2017, Meow-Meow embedded the chip from an Opal card, the payment card for Sydney's public transport systems, into his hand. He could now simply wave his hand to pay the fare.

Tampering with the card breached its terms of use, however, and Transport for NSW deactivated the account. The legal battle over whether that was legitimate is continuing, with Meow-Meow next in court in March.

Genetic engineering your own body is a whole new thing.

SEE: Playing God: "We are in the midst of a genetic revolution" (CBS News)

One possibility is knocking out the gene that produces myostatin, a protein that inhibits the process of turning fat into muscle tissue. Disrupt the production of myostatin, and the body will create far more muscle tissue than normal.

"Instead of going to the gym like an ordinary person, you can just sit on the couch and you will turn into a beefcake. This is the idea at least, and there's a fair few people who are like very, very interested in this," Meow-Meow said.

One of the first self-experimenters was Tristan Roberts who, as the BBC reported, was "the first human to inject an untested, experimental gene therapy into his stomach fat". He even livestreamed it on Facebook.

Roberts, who is HIV positive, was frustrated with the slow pace of medical research. So he injected himself with DNA that is intended to trigger production of the antibody N6, which in experiments has neutralised 98 percent of the virus. And he dumped his HIV medication.

"The rest of the biohackers are a bit, like, that's pretty stupid, dude, but he thinks that it's his best solution," Meow-Meow said.

"I think what's interesting here is about the ethics around whether he should be able to do that, and what happens if you live in a country with socialised health care, and everyone starts GMOing [genetically modifying] themselves. Are we responsible for paying for that, and where does that responsibility shift and end?"

Meow-Meow reminded the conference that one of the most important medical breakthroughs was the result of self-experimentation, and it happened in Australia.

In 1994, physician Barry Marshall infected himself with the the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, demonstrating that it was the cause of many stomach ulcers. It won him a Nobel Prize.

Genes can't be patented, at least according to the US Supreme Court and the High Court of Australia, so that's one hurdle that biohackers won't face. But could copyright be an issue? Safety? Will we see "responsible gene-hacking" laws? Licensing of genetic engineers?

No matter, cheap home lab kits and good ol' human curiosity mean that DIY genetic engineering will soon explode in popularity.

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Stilgherrian is a freelance journalist, commentator and podcaster interested in big-picture internet issues, especially security, cybercrime and hoovering up bulldust. He studied computing science and linguistics before a wide-ranging media career an...

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