Why is biohacking so interesting

The dream of a new person - How biohackers manipulate their genetic make-up

Biohackers like to stage their self-experiments in public

Josiah Zayner was the first biohacker to publicly inject himself with a Crispr active ingredient. At a biotech conference in San Francisco. He wanted to show how easy it is to carry out such an experiment.

Zayner justifies it like this: "I don't want to and can't experiment with other people. That would be unethical. I don't have the money to do clinical trials either. Nobody would approve that anyway. What is my choice?"

Josiah Zayner holds a PhD in molecular biology and did research on bacteria for NASA before he went into business for himself and the company The Odin She sends Crispr kits all over the world. Harvard professor and Crispr co-inventor George Church is one of the advisors in his genetic engineering mail order shop.

Biohackers want to take evolution into their own hands

One of the customers of The Odin is biohacker Rich Lee. He wants to use Crispr to turn off the myostatin gene in his muscle cells. This gene controls muscle growth.

Biomedical scientists have tried something similar on animal embryos: mice, dogs, rabbits, goats, pigs, and cattle. When the animals were big, they had twice as much muscle mass as untreated conspecifics.

Rich Lee says it's not about having more muscles. His goal is to prevent the wear and tear on his muscles and keep them alive longer.

He has now ordered a do-it-yourself kit on the Internet for $ 150. Officially one should only manipulate yeast bacteria with it. In the US, even elementary school children are experimenting with it. But The Odin explains on his website how one can also genetically modify human DNA with Crispr. No ethics committee in the world would allow such attempts. That's why Rich Lee experiments on himself.

Rich Lee mixes up the genetic engineering in his garage

Lee received a heat lamp from his roommate and placed it over a petri dish using cardboard. It is a kind of bioreactor with genetically modified E-coli bacteria.

The experimental setup is reminiscent of "Jugend forscht", except that Rich Lee never finished high school and is 39 years old. He is bald and constantly strokes his goatee while talking. He uses a centrifuge to produce the Crispr active ingredient. With it, genes can then be switched off, repaired or new genes inserted.

The fact that experts warn against self-experiments leaves the biohacker cold

A warning is given that Crispr could have serious side effects because the gene scissors may also cut the DNA in other places. In the worst case, a malignant tumor could develop. Nevertheless, many biohackers consider the risk to be acceptable.

Many biohackers post their self-experiments on the internet

Rich Lee also lets his roommate film him while he injects the self-mixed liquid into his arms. It is uncertain whether an effect can be expected in this way. Because in the Crispr experiments, in which mice and pigs mutated into muscular limbs, researchers genetically modified the embryos of the animals in the test tube. However, Rich Lee is a grown man, his muscle cells are fully developed. But such skepticism doesn't stop him.

The link between biohackers and transhumanists

The transhumanists advocate voluntary human improvement with the help of psychotropic drugs, computer and genetic engineering. Many of them are self-taught and adventurers, but also serious scientists. There is a transhumanist party in the United States and Rich Lee is one of its advisors.

The philosopher Nick Bostrom works at Oxford University in England. He founded the umbrella organization for transhumanists, the World Transhumanist Association. In Germany, the philosopher Stefan Sorgner has just published a book on transhumanism called "Beautiful New Man". The title is meant seriously:

"For the first time we have the possibility to change our genes in a precise way at a low price and very reliably, he says. Body hackers who advance such development at home can do research that is otherwise prohibited."

Transhumanists advocate self-experiments using genetic engineering

The philosopher Stefan Lorenz Sorgner from John Cabot University, a private university in Rome, is considered a bad boy of philosophy.

He's not just advocating self-experimentation using genetic engineering. But also the genetic modification of embryos and children by their parents. This is nothing more than education or vaccination, argues Sorgner:

"Cyborg means cybernetic organism, and that ultimately goes back to the concept of the helmsman. So a controlled organism. In this respect, upbringing has always been control. And with the help of the latest technologies, the possibilities of control are expanded even further. And just as it is even morally compulsory to use certain educational techniques, even the use of certain newest techniques could also be morally, perhaps even legally compulsory."

Transhumanist Sorgner focuses on genetically optimizing embryos

Stefan Lorenz Sorgner argues that this is nothing new. After all, until 1976 it was legally mandatory in Germany for children to be vaccinated against smallpox. After all, that was also a prescribed biotechnological improvement for the child.

Critics warn of a new caste of supermen

The Israeli historian Yuval Harari warns that transhumanism could create a new caste of superman. These supermen would not treat the rest of the population much better than 19th century Europeans would treat Africans. Harari, author of the bestseller "Homo Deus - divine human"says:

"As fast as technology advances, I see two possibilities for the next 200 years: Either we will destroy ourselves through a nuclear war, a cyber war, climate change, or a combination of all of these. But that's unlikely. Rather, with the new technologies we will acquire the ability to reshape life and create body and consciousness. Homo sapiens will not disappear in some Hollywood-like apocalypse, but will upgrade itself to a completely different level."

Such scenarios are still bold speculation. With the help of Crispr, some diseases could disappear from the human gene pool. But traits like intelligence or creativity are influenced by a multitude of genes. Their interplay is only partially understood.

How should one deal with do-it-yourself genetic engineering?

In Germany, genetic engineering experiments, even with bacteria or plants, are only allowed in safety laboratories.

Nevertheless, there is also a small community of biohackers in this country who meet for so-called Crispr-Kitchen. In 2017, the Berlin biohacker and biologist RĂ¼diger Trojok organized a so-called Crispr Kitchen together with the Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis ITAS of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Munich.

In the USA, on the other hand, biohackers are allowed to experiment at their own risk.

Rich Lee also ordered his genetic engineering kit here: E-coli bacteria, Petri dishes, pipettes, cannulas, disposable gloves, test tubes, the agar-agar nutrient medium, the Crispr enzyme CAS-9. All for $ 159 plus shipping.

Biohackers feel slowed down by tight regulations and laws.

They are a motley bunch of exotic species. But there are also black sheep. These are those who want to do business with the sick and the ignorant. A 28-year-old said at a biohacking conference in February 2018 that his company had developed "genetically programmed nanorobots" that could cure herpes. In addition, the technology could attack 85 percent of all types of cancer, and next, his company will distribute an AIDS drug in Venezuela. Shares in the company could be purchased in Bitcoin. Most biohackers reacted indignantly. They accused the businessman of pseudoscience and rip-offs.

The ethical limit

Where do you draw the line when biohackers experiment with genetic engineering? There, where others are harmed, that is undisputed. But if the technology is more advanced, will biohackers be able to father a child with their own, manipulated sperm cells, for example? It is quite possible that one day parliaments and courts will have to deliberate on such issues.

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