Zayner is no stranger to stunts in biohacking—loosely defined as experiments, often on the self, that take place outside of traditional lab spaces. You might say he invented their latest incarnation: He’s sterilized his body to “transplant” his entire microbiome in front of a reporter. He’s squabbled with the FDA about selling a kit to make glow-in-the-dark beer. He’s extensively documented attempts to genetically engineer the color of his skin. And most notoriously, he injected his arm with DNA encoding for CRISPR that could theoretically enhance his muscles—in between taking swigs of Scotch at a live-streamed event during an October conference. (Experts say—and even Zayner himself in the live-stream conceded—it’s unlikely to work.)
So when Zayner saw Ascendance Biomedical’s CEO injecting himself on a live-stream earlier this month, you might say there was an uneasy flicker of recognition.
Ascendance Bio soon fell apart in almost comical fashion. The company’s own biohackers—who created the treatment but who were not being paid—revolted and the CEO locked himself in a lab. Even before all that, the company had another man inject himself with an untested HIV treatment on Facebook Live. And just days after the pants-less herpes treatment stunt, another biohacker who shared lab space with Ascendance posted a video detailing a self-created gene therapy for lactose intolerance. The stakes in biohacking seem to be getting higher and higher.
“Honestly, I kind of blame myself,” Zayner told me recently. He’s been in a soul-searching mood; he recently had a kid and the backlash to the CRISPR stunt in October had been getting to him. “There’s no doubt in my mind that somebody is going to end up hurt eventually,” he said.
Zayner holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry and biophysics, and he now runs a company called The ODIN that sells DIY CRISPR kits, including the CRISPR construct he injected in himself for the muscle growth. He’s long had critics, and he certainly does not speak for the entire biohacking community. But given that even the most visible stuntman in biohacking is worried about the effects of his stunts, I asked him to reflect on recent events.
We talked about why Zayner originally injected himself with CRISPR on a live-stream, why he sees his stunts as “social activism” gone awry, and why he is still planning to sell DIY CRISPR kits. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Sarah Zhang: So how did you first hear about Ascendance testing its herpes treatment live on stage? Were you at the conference?
Josiah Zayner: No, so I was actually just watching a live-stream. Aaron Traywick [Ascendance’s CEO] went out and he recruited a bunch of biohackers. He got a bunch of people I know, and they were discussing with me about whether they should work with this guy, and I was like, “I dunno, it seems really sketchy.”
Why is this guy seeking out biohackers and not medical professionals, like a legitimate person would if you were trying to do some sort of legitimate research in gene therapies? They were saying, “I dunno, they cost so much money and other stuff.” That seems really strange and sketchy that some guy would avoid legitimate researchers.
Zhang: Let’s talk about that—the difference between biohackers and professional scientists. I usually think of biohacking as biohackers doing things that are hard or impossible to do inside the system.
Zhang: Things like body augmentation or longevity research—things the National Institutes of Health is uninterested in funding. It was interesting to me to see what Ascendance was doing described as biohacking because it was working on therapies lots of professional scientists are in fact working on but under more regulation.
Zayner: It confuses me also, honestly. With the whole HIV thing, there’s literally people at the NIH who are researching the exact same antibody that these people are trying to use.
You know what, I kind of blame myself, honestly.
Zhang: Oh, really?
Zayner: I see myself as a scientist but also a social activist with some of the experiments I’ve done. Like, how can I do this experiment from a scientific way but also to make people think? Make people think or push CRISPR experiments further forward or make fecal transplants become more mainstream.
What it’s turned into now, people view it as a way to get press and get publicity and get famous. And people are going to get hurt. There’s no doubt in my mind that somebody is going to end up hurt eventually. Everybody is trying to one-up each other more and more. It’s just getting more and more dangerous, like the whole lactose-tolerance thing. These guys are saying they purified a virus and then ingested it.
Zhang: What was your goal as a social activist then?
Zayner: One of my big problems with academic and medical science is you read lots of these papers. Lots of stuff, we cured X or we did X, but it won’t be available to the general public for 10, 20, 30, 40 years. To me, that seems ridiculous. How do you expect this technology go forward if they aren’t testing, playing around it?
What is too early and what is too late? I don’t know if there’s an answer. I don’t know if I’m the correct one to ask that question. But maybe activists putting this knowledge out there, letting people know how easy and accessible it is, can spur people to push this stuff. Develop it more. Develop it faster. Develop it quicker. Maybe just completely because they’re afraid biohackers will beat them too it. Maybe because they’re afraid biohackers will do something stupid.
I’m not saying I’m 100 percent right. Obviously, I’m a fallible human being, and I do ridiculous stuff also. I’m sure my motives are not 100 percent pure all the time.
Zhang: You run a company that sells DIY CRISPR kits, including the DNA construct that you injected to disrupt a muscle gene. Have recent events made you rethink how you run your company? Are you going to keep selling DIY CRISPR kits?
Zayner: Oh, well, most of our CRISPR kits are used for engineering microorganisms—they’re used in yeast and bacteria and things like that. We do sell the CRISPR DNA and other DNA. But like I said, that should be made available just because if these tools aren’t made available, people will still make them somehow. Pushing it to the outskirts, pushing it underground, is going to push people to do ridiculous uninformed, things. If it’s out in the open, I can have people coming to me and asking questions about it. You have people coming to the community asking questions. I don’t know if it’s changed the way we run the company. We sell education kits and we sell supplies, and I think it’s always going to be our stance.
There have been people who’ve contacted us for the sole purpose of buying stuff from us to inject. We seriously discourage people from doing that. Obviously we can’t stop them from doing it, but we discourage people and try to point them in correct direction so they can seek out knowledge.
Zhang: Even if you discourage people, you are on camera injecting yourself.
Zayner: I know—it’s a moral and ethical dilemma. This is what I was talking about. That’s why I feel responsible for this shit. When I was doing it—it’s so funny, because maybe you and maybe some other science writers knew about me before I did this and some other experiments, but nobody really paid attention to me. It wasn’t like, “Oh yeah, I’m doing this and I expect all of sudden thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people to listen to me and see what I’m doing.”
All the experiments before that, all the YouTube videos that I posted before that, nobody really paid attention to it. It was just the biohacker community.
All of a sudden I did this. I’ll admit when I did it, it was very provocative. It was very, very, very provocative—kind of on purpose, kind of on accident. I wanted people to recognize what was [possible] with this technology. I wasn’t trying to give myself bigger muscles. I wasn’t trying necessarily to genetically modify myself. I don’t want to genetically modify myself at the moment. So many people ask me to do it on camera, and I’m like, are you crazy? I’m not injecting myself for TV. I didn’t intend for it to be this way.
I was doing it to try provoke people in the industry. It was at SynBioBeta, which was [a synthetic biology] industry meeting, to provoke people in the industry who are in regulation, people who are involved in ethics to think about what is holding us back.
Zhang: I imagine if I’d told you a year ago you would get a lot of attention for one of your projects, you would have thought it’s great. But it sounds like you’re dealing with the downsides of the attention.
Zayner: Totally. Like I said, before I did that experiment on myself, I didn’t realize the consequences of what would happen. Then all of a sudden, it just went out of control. People were writing articles about how I wanted to be like Captain American and the Incredible Hulk. What’s going on? All of a sudden all these people are following me on social media and listening to everything I say.
On Facebook, I posted this video the other day. I bought these silly straw glasses as a funny joke. You can drink water with silly straw glasses and drink beer with it. I posted this, I thought funny, video on Facebook and Instagram pretending I was mouth pipetting with the silly straw glasses—totally as a funny joke. And people were, like, taking it so seriously. “Oh man, this is a great idea.” I was like, “What?” I do not encourage mouth pipetting. I didn’t realize what my actions could result in. I’m just starting to come to grips with that.