What is biohacking? And who is Josiah Zayner?

Josiah Zayner has a PhD in biophysics, and through his company The ODIN, he aims to make genetic engineering available for everyone.

Biohacking is the non-formal use of biology tools outside of traditional learning environments.

It is at the core of Biohack the Planet, a movement led by Zayner, which aims to provide everyone access to gene editing tools, while also teaching them how to use them.

There are conflicting arguments on whether or not this movement is right, and above all, society should understand these arguments before making any decision.

Source: Matt Biddulph on Wikimedia (license)

Josiah Zayner. CEO of The ODIN, and leader of the Biohack the Planet movement.

To further understand this debate, and what it means for everyone, some background information is required on genetics, gene editing, and the concept of the rich getting richer

Genetics aims to understand how genes are passed on from parents to offspring, and in the end lead to one’s features. Studying genetics has allowed scientists to understand several disorders, and develop therapies.

It is important to note that many disorders are largely impacted by genetics, suggesting that we could use genetic engineering to take away this suffering, which concerns the affected and their families alike.

Genetic engineering is the intentional use of gene editing tools to change an organism’s genes. Effects of a given tool are dependent on the organism in question and on the dosage of the drug. However, two things should be noted: One, that many changes are irreversible, thus caution needs to be taken prior to engaging in any activity related to this. And two, gene editing has become much easier to perform using CRISPR, and is only getting easier as researchers further understand and develop this technology. 

Image by the author

The potential of genetic engineering. Should genome editing be limited to deadly disease? Should it even be used in humans in the first place?

Overall, these advancements in genetic engineering make it easier for researchers to study the effects of specific genes. However, this also gives motivation to movements such as Biohack the Planet, because of the idea that the rich are getting richer.

The rich getting richer suggests that since rich people have more, they can invest more, in turn allowing them to become richer. For example, a high school basketball player from a wealthy family may be expected to reach a higher level than a non-wealthy, but similarly talented players in his cohorts, because of the ability of his family to invest in training and equipment to optimize his success.

In the same sense, it is expected that rich people have more money to afford genetic engineering, allowing them to provide more enhancements to their children, in turn potentially giving their children a higher chance of success through those enhancements, whether it be athletic ability, intelligence, or absence of genetic disease.

Thus, in order to combat this potential future, Zayner proposed a solution. Instead of big corporations regulating whether or not someone can have access to genetic engineering, why not leave it up to the individual?

Zayner wants us all to have super babies. Is this possible? Moral? What do you think?

In contrast, although Zayner’s goals may seem to have positive implications from his perspective, the scientific community, ethics groups, and potentially society altogether do not always share the same opinion. 

Some say Zayner and his movement are a counterculture, which opposes the idea of gene editing and its regulations belonging to only those with money and power.

However, there are reasons why this technology is not widely available for everyone. 

For instance, Eugenics was a movement that aimed to improve the human race, and was implicated with controversies related to race, intelligence, forced sterilizations, and more. The famous words by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in Buck v. Bell, “Three Generations of imbeciles are enough”, emboldened states to prevent those deemed socially inadequate from having kids, and resulted in about 70,000 forced sterilizations

Ultimately, genome editing with CRISPR could lead to the exclusion and social judgement of those believed to be biologically inferior on many scales. Those in power must consider this discrimination before deciding who can use CRISPR.

Also, scientists have attempted gene editing in the past, and stories have not always been successful. Thus, to prevent any regrettable mistakes, scientists and authorities alike aim for certainty, which inherently takes time. 

Overall, it can be seen that Zayner and those in power hold strongly contrasting views in terms of when and how gene editing tools should be distributed. In general, society is not ready to normalize gene editing.

Source: RealDeafWiki on Wikimedia (license)

Plaque outlining the effect of Eugenics in Indiana. Eugenics also took place globally, including in Nazi Germany. Many suffered. We must think critically before introducing technologies that can harm others.

Now, it should be noted that Zayner’s goals and the arguments made against them go deeper than what was presented here. For instance, when Zayner states that anyone should have access to genetic engineering, he means anyone. If you watch his crowdfunding advertisement for Biohack the Planet, he says that he is even okay with children using bio-engineering tools, thus showing how deep Zayner’s intentions are when he claims that he wants to change the world.

Moreover, a big criticism made against Zayner is the idea of what happens when a mistake is made. This was covered in the docuseries Unnatural Selection, where in episode 4, Dr. Kevin Esvelt, an evolutionary biologist and advocate for responsive science, expressed that if a tragic death occurs, in the process of developing a gene therapy, then this would have a negative impact on public trust, and setback the overall process of introducing that therapy. And although Zayner’s response to this was not directly shown, it was highlighted that his only goal was to allow access to genetic engineering, and does not see the consequences of that ideal in the long run.

Also, it should be noted that the scientific community in general is not even looking in the direction of editing humans using CRISPR, given that current tests are largely focused on studying genes through mice, and positively impacting ecosystems. Yet, one scientist did it, and he got severely punished for it.

Source: The He Lab on Wikimedia (license)

He Jiankui. In 2019 he performed CRISPR on two twin girls, resulting in his imprisonment for practicing illegal medicine. His aim was to make the girls immune to HIV. Controversies surrounding safety, efficacy and ethics regarding his method are currently being discussed.

Should humans edit themselves using CRISPR? To what extent? And what effects would this have in the long run? Feel free to share your point of view.

Learn more about the designer baby debate
  1. The ethical dilemma of designer babies
  2. Trailer: Gattaca
  3. Current price(s) of gene therapy
  4. The Dark Side of CRISPR
  1. Cyranoski, D. (2020, January 3). What CRISPR-baby prison sentences mean for research. Nature News. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00001-y.

About the author

This post was written by Kyle Valentino. He is a fourth year Molecular Biology and Biotechnology student at the University of Toronto, Scarborough. He is heavily interested in genetics, genomics, and behavior. Among other things, Kyle likes to have conversations on science, and encourage those around him to ask questions about how it is relevant in today’s world. You can contact him at kyle.valentino@mail.utoronto.ca.

Featured image: Kirill Nechmonya on Unsplash (license).

Published by Kyle Valentino

Graduated biotechnology specialist from the University of Toronto, Scarborough

2 thoughts on “What is biohacking? And who is Josiah Zayner?

  1. If Zayner movement was to come true who would benefit from this? Not the regular 9-5 workers. The rich is still getting richer no matter what. This would be beneficial if everyone can use it but just people who can afford it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hello, thank you for your comment. Yes, I do think there is a lot of responsibility associated with human genetic modification, and I think this is highlighted in the first video I suggested titled “The ethical dilemma of designer babies”, where Paul Knoepfler suggests that we should ban designer babies using CRISPR entirely because at the moment, it is too dangerous and unpredictable. I’d like to note that one of his biggest concerns is what would drive someone to modify their child. But at the same time, as suggested by UK’s exceptions on human genetic engineering (mentioned by Paul Knoepfler), and highlighted in the docuseries “Unnatural Selection” (which features Zayner), families and children inheriting certain serious and rare genetic diseases would benefit from more accessibility. So essentially, I think it is how societies operates both individually and as whole that will matter as they are making decisions regarding the introduction of human modification technologies.

      Liked by 1 person

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