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  • Writer's pictureAnanyashri Sai

Biohacking: Friend or Foe?

At the moment, there are a variety of DIY biology or “Do-It-Yourself

CRISPR” kits that are both legally and illegally sold as chemistry kits but have potential in very

complex gene-altering experiments. Even the most basic yeast and bacteria kits in the market do

not accurately represent the high-level work that can be created using them. A report conducted

by the Brookington Institute in 2017 discovered that the popularity of these packages was

astounding: an estimated 30,000 enthusiasts across the United States alone (Guerrini et al.). In

2022, this number was bound to have significantly increased, further indicating the

uncontrollable nature the DIY kits embody. As a result, a recent “biohacking” movement

has risen in the black market that utilizes low-grade lab equipment consisting of DIY kits that

encourage users to experimentally change DNA (the purpose of the tool CRISPR). It falls

into the larger field of human genome modifications that splits into the following research areas:

somatic cell, germline, and human embryos. Currently, there are no problems with somatic cell

research. Most issues exist with modifying human embryos and experimental biology that falls

under the umbrella of germline editing. Specifically, the ethical and human

rights questions raised concerns for those who utilize these kits.


Many individuals who purchase these kits are amateurs and scientific fanatics whose utilization of these kits has caused drastic, uncharted side effects. A key example is Keoni Gandall, a high school student whose rash use of his DIY biology kit to manipulate mitochondria got him dismissed from his school’s science fair (Fernandez). While the experiment ceased before it got out of hand, the potential for this high school student, who did not have access to an appropriate lab nor the experience to handle mitochondrial manipulation, to take this experiment too far is frightening. It is similar to letting a young child play with fire: the potential dangers of something happening to them or anyone around them is too great to ignore. Others, like Annie Sneed, a scientific journalist at the New York Times, do experiments without knowing what they are doing. She recounts how her roommate Brett and she had no idea if “stuffing” a plate of E. coli bacteria into her fridge with her dinner would get them sick. Even more than the worry of almost starting an E. coli breakout, she had “no idea” if that would affect her study and decided to wait “for the experiment to thaw” instead of asking for help (Sneed). Once again, the easy-to-access mail-order kits falling into irresponsible hands can drastically affect the individual and their immediate community - in this case, the apartment complex if an E. coli breakout did occur.


Furthermore, the arguably biggest problem with these kits is how they can be utilized and

manipulated into experiments where the researcher plays God and creates irreversible heritable

changes in organisms with low survival chances. He Jiankui, a Chinese researcher, and his team

utilized CRISPR to genetically edit two twin human embryos using a novel CCR5 gene to make

them naturally immune to HIV. While experimenting, he was aware that his alteration was only

“partially successful, if at all,” and could result in a “mosaic of altered and unaltered cells for

both embryos and off-target genetic change” (Beers). While this event was known as the most

shocking misapplication of any scientific tool in history, the fact the kits are accessible by

anyone makes the dangers of abuse frightening. Sneed even recollected a moment of how her

breath striking a Parhyale’s embryo caused it to “dance[d] wildly around the petri dish, like a

grain of sand caught in a windstorm” - a jarring depiction of a living being’s struggle to live

(Sneed).


Yet, biohacking could become the future of scientific advancement. Many researchers

who do not have the funds for an expensive laboratory but have had the proper training are now available to conduct research. It opens up the arena of the scientific playing field to individuals

who were discriminated against by the system. In addition, with these inexpensive yet advanced

laboratory kits, researchers can expedite lengthy processes and quickly find results. The Odin’s

Crispr gene-editing kit ($159) or DNA Playground from Amino Labs, or an Easy Bake genetic

oven (costing less than an iPad), can whittle down months of research and work in an actual lab

into a few weeks (Baumgaertner). Its potential can enable us to catch up with the rapid

advancement of scientific thoughts and theories. So, it seems that it all depends on the hands that these biohacking kits fall into with regard to how biohacking can orchestrate the flow of our society. Thus, I end with one burning question: Is the biohacking movement a friend or a foe? Only time can tell.


Citations:


1. Baumgaertner, Emily. “As D.I.Y. Gene Editing Gains Popularity, ‘Someone Is Going to

Get Hurt.’” The New York Times, 14 May 2018,


2. Beers, Van Britta. “Rewriting the Human Genome, Rewriting Human Rights Law?

Human Rights, Human Dignity, and Human Germline Modification in the CRISPR Era.”


3. Christi J. Guerrini, G. E. Spencer & Patricia J. Zettler, DIY CRISPR, 97 N.C. L. Rev.

1399 (2019).


4. Fernandez, Elizabeth. “Yes, People Can Edit the Genome in Their Garage. Can They Be

Regulated?” Forbes, 19 Sept. 2019.


5. Sneed, Annie. “Mail-Order CRISPR Kits Allow Absolutely Anyone to Hack DNA.”

Scientific American, 2 Nov. 2017,



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Aug 15, 2023

I was doing MicrocinV engineering, not mitochondrial engineering for that project. I wasn't working out of a kit (I had a fully equipped lab). It also didn't cease, but worked! Which was great. I had access to 2 labs (I worked at UCI at that time for about 2 years, plus LA biohackers lab), but simply wanted to do it in my own lab. I indeed had training - passed all safety training at UCI, and had 2 years of experience in a professional lab at that time, plus about 3 years of my own lab experience. The reason the project got dismissed is they didn't accept those qualifications. That was in high school - in middle school, I did…

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