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Bay Area Synthetic Biologist Looks to Establish CRISPR as DIY Science


NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – Two weeks ago, synthetic biologist Josiah Zayner launched a crowdfunding campaign on the website Indiegogo that promises to fulfill the thesis driving both hopes for and fears of CRISPR/Cas9 genome engineering: it's so easy, anyone can do it. For $100 plus shipping, anybody can do their own bona fide CRISPR/Cas9 bacterial genome in the comfort of their kitchen.

Zayner himself will fulfill the orders, under the auspices of his do-it-yourself biology supply company, The Open Discovery Institute (The Odin), which he runs out of his Burlingame, California apartment. "My apartment is basically just like a normal apartment," he said, "except my kitchen is a table covered in science supplies and boxes with reagents and my fridge is full of media plates."

The CRISPR kits include all the basics for a budding biohacker, not only the DNA coding for the Streptococcus pyogenes Cas9 protein, guide RNAs, and donor template DNA to introduce genes like a light-controlled genetic circuit to induce RFP gene expression, but also a micropipette, media, tubes, plates, and even video protocols he's developed to turn someone with no wetlab experience into a genetic engineer in the course of a week. Step one? Learn how to use a pipette.

"Then they're going to have to start growing out bacteria and yeast, making media, and learn how to pour plates," Zayner said. He chose to teach people to create light-controlled bacteria because it allows for individual experimentation afterward. "You can ask 'What happens when I put a pattern on it?'"

"When you initially get into science, you need your hand held for a little bit," he explained. "If you ask somebody, 'What do you want to genetically engineer?' they're like  'I want to do a bacteria that makes plastic.' That's cool but it's also complicated. You have to say, 'First let's learn how to make a bacteria that just has one gene.' The knowledge you gain from that can then be applied to put multiple genes in the organism," he said.

Coinciding with the publication of several major CRISPR-focused feature stories in outlets such as the New York Times and the New Yorker, Zayner's timing couldn't have been better. Looking to raise $10,000, the project was fully funded in three days and now has more than $25,000 committed to it.

"It wasn't on purpose," Zayner told GenomeWeb. "But it's kind of the perfect opportunity. My goal is to get people exposed to science and doing science and participating in science because once you increase the science fluency of people of the world, that allows that technology to grow. For synthetic molecular biology and genetic engineering, the more fluent people are in it the more it can be accepted, the more it can grow, and the less people can be afraid of it."

Zayner received his doctorate in molecular biophysics from the University of Chicago in 2013 and is currently working on fellowship at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, but he's been selling supplies to biohackers for several years as part of his personal mission to get more people involved in science.

The Odin is primarily about making science accessible. "I'm buying a lot of the same manufacturers that everybody else does, except instead of marking it up 1,000 fold, I only mark it up like ten fold. I also provide quantities nobody else provides," Zayner said. "Most biohackers aren't going to use 2 kg of sodium chloride or luria broth. What they'll need is 100 g and nobody's going to sell 100 g because [Sigma-Aldrich] or these other companies don't have to because they function in such bulk that it doesn't make sense for them."

Zayner's CRISPR kits are an exercise in democratizing a cool new technology and demonstrating the economics that allow The Odin to support that. "If you tell someone 'I can provide [a genetic engineering kit] to you for $150 and make a profit,' they probably think you're crazy," he said. "Normally you pay $400 for a pipette alone."

The Odin comes out of his personal difficulties in practicing science outside of the establishment, even as a doctoral student, when he had access to the labs at the University of Chicago. "I'm a very maker hacker type person. I've always liked to build stuff," Zayner said. While he was at Chicago, he got the idea for a musical instrument that created tones based on protein interactions. "My boss was like 'Eh, it's not really that interesting. In academia we're focused on fundamental hardcore science, like the thermodynamics of proteins and what happens when you engineer them or mutate them.' I said, '[Now] what do I do? I have all these resources in the lab I can't use and I want to do these experiments and build this thing, I guess I'm going to have to build it at home.'"

Zayner was able to track down the various parts for his instrument, which he named the Chromocord, but not easily. "You find a little bit here and a little there," he said. Some suppliers had what he was looking for, but wouldn't ship it to his home address.

Completing that project is a great source of pride for Zayner. "If I were to say, 'I'm not going to do this because I don't have access to the resources,' [the Chromocord] never would have happened. Just personally, that would have been super sad because that was a pretty neat part of my life and a pretty cool thing personally." The instrument has even been featured at the Museum of Modern Art's PS1 space in New York.

The success of the CRISPR crowdfunding campaign is a good omen for Zayner, who is committing himself to spreading DIY biology. He's taken his experience in building a synthetic biology lab at NASA and spread it to biohacker and maker spaces across the country. In addition to teaching classes on protein purification, among other subjects, at the Bay Area's BioCurious in Sunnyvale and Counter Culture Labs in Oakland, he's helped Orlando, Florida-based Familab set up its space. One of the skills he brings is the ability to refurbish old lab equipment. "What I do a lot of is I'll buy equipment from eBay or surplus auctions and refurbish them. I have a lot of electronics experience, so I can find PCR machines for $50 to $100 and resell them for $200," he said.

But not everybody is thrilled with the idea of CRISPR getting put in the hands of amateurs. Zayner said he's received lots of emails in response to the crowdfunding campaign; some are whimsical, even silly — he said one person asked for his help genetically engineering a cat — but others are grave, as if he's unleashing a damaging force into the world. Perhaps they're afraid of the cat genome engineers.

When asked about the role that biohackers have to play in the discussions about ethical use of CRISPR, Zayner said he's all for pushing boundaries. "The fact is that bacteria are everywhere and DNA is everywhere so it is impossible to control someone in their home. I believe it is the responsibility of biohackers to push boundaries. Obviously, the boundaries that shouldn't be pushed are the ones where people try to do dangerous or harmful things," he said, but added "dangerous things are quite difficult to do."