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A ‘Grueling and Grotesque’ Biohacking Experiment

Feb 21, 2018 | 831 videos
Video by Kate McLean and Mario Furloni

In 2016, Josiah Zayner, a former synthetic biology research scientist at NASA, checked himself into a hotel room. Over the course of four days, he performed an extremely risky experiment on himself. The goal: “To completely replace all of the bacteria that are contained within my body.”

Gut Hack, a short documentary by Kate McLean and Mario Furloni, chronicles Zayner’s attempt to transplant his microbiome in order to relieve himself of a lifetime of debilitating gastrointestinal problems. “All of the medical doctors [I’ve seen] haven’t helped,” Zayner says in the film. “You just expect me to deal with my symptoms for the rest of my life? Why are people so afraid of something different—some change, some experiment?” Using bacterial samples from a donor, Zayner takes matters into his own hands to recolonize his body with a new ecosystem of microorganisms.

McLean met Zayner by chance at a synthetic biology conference. According to co-director Furloni, at one point during a presentation, Zayner began to loudly boo the speaker from the back of the room, shouting “Biohack the planet!" That’s when McLean knew she had to make a film about him.

“This movie is our attempt to share Josiah’s grueling and grotesque ordeal,” McLean told The Atlantic, “and communicate how it felt to behold this weird period of his life: alternately full of wonder, disgust, anxiety, excitement, exhaustion, and awe. At the end of the day, I hope the audience is entertained, intellectually engaged, and horrified in equal measure.”

In a recently published interview with The Atlantic writer Sarah Zhang, Zayner expressed concerns about the way in which the public has interpreted his biohacking experiments. “I see myself as a scientist but also a social activist,” he said. “How can I do experiments in a scientific way but also make people think? What it’s turned into now...people view it as a way to get press and get publicity and get famous. There’s no doubt in my mind that somebody is going to end up hurt eventually.”

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.