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Biohacking by mail order: Reckless or educational?


This article has been written by our guest contributor, Alice Godden.

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In this short feature, I will highlight the Odin, a company run by biohacker and CRISPR-pirate Josiah Zayner. The Odin offer at-home kits for a range of science activities, but most notably for CRISPR-Cas9. Gone are the days of playing with chemistry sets and telescopes, now you can make your own mutants!

Dr Zayner and the Odin

Dr. Zayner was a synthetic biotechnology researcher working at NASA. Josiah now is a self-proclaimed biohacker. A biohacker is someone that plays with genetic engineering at home, and potentially on themselves, without regard to ethical standards. He is perhaps best known for injecting himself with CRISPR-Cas9 reagents. Josiah believes in an even playing field, we should all have the skills and access to tools that could be changing the world. Where people take issue is experimentation on humans and animals. The risks associated with biohacking can be severe and potentially reckless if taken too far. Some countries like Germany have banned the import of these kits due to concerns about the public toying with dangerous pathogens at home and other potential public health risks.

The beginning

Initially, crowdfunding was used to set up the company now known as The Odin to help distribute genetic engineering and CRISPR kits to anyone who wants them. When founded the company had support from CRISPR pioneer Prof George Church from Harvard medical school.

We all know that CRISPR-Cas9 is revolutionizing genomics research, with its high-powered precision gene-editing technologies. Like making a cake, CRISPR requires a few ingredients and certain parameters. With easy step-by-step guides, the Odin retails DIY CRISPR kits for use by the public and for educational use. He recently launched Bioengineering 101, a curriculum with educational videos.

The kits

The kits themselves contain common ingredients found in most biological science labs like LB agar and plastic consumables. Also contained within the kit are non-infectious E.coli to transform your CRISPR reagents into. The CRISPR genome modification in the kit aims to mutate the E.coli so they are able to grow on Strep-antibiotic plates that would normally prevent their growth. This could be used as a powerful tool to help educate the next generation of scientists as well as the public about antimicrobial resistance and the power of modern molecular biology.

The controversy

There has been some opposition to the retail of these kits. For example just because there are no laws against the public biohacking, should there be the opportunity for everyone to have a go? Or is this a tool that only the highest skilled and educated scientists should have access to? I believe that these kits should be used, but with obvious safety cautions and some regulation for the purposes of health, wellbeing and safety. Customers of the Odin include teachers buying these kits for schools, and why not? These could make great lessons and really teach students the cutting edge of modern science.


Meet the biohacker

Bioengineering kits

Mail order kits banned in Germany

The Odin

More on these topics

BioHacking / CRISPR / Gene Editing