When you think of the genetic engineering that’s happening in the world today, you probably imagine it happening at a university or a big biotechnology firm – people in white lab coats are using sophisticated and expensive equipment to do the complex and delicate work of gene editing.
For all but the most paranoid people, this is certainly a comforting image. It’s all so professional and well-regulated, right?
It turns out that some elements of gene editing are now so commonplace and simple that you can do it at home. Thanks to cheap gene editing kits sold to the public, the age of the amateur biologist is upon us. Is that a good or a bad thing? Well, it depends on who you ask.
What’s in the Genetic Engineering Box?
There are lots of different kit configurations available. For example, you can buy a number of guided kits that are designed to let you experience a specific hands-on experiment or a small number of such experiments. The-odin.com sells a CRISPR kit for about $150 and it comes with the tools to edit three specific genes in bacteria. The purpose of the kit is obviously just educational, but it’s actually mind-blowing that you can perform a real genetic engineering experiment in your kitchen for just $150.
Another kit they sell for just ten bucks more lets you mutate brewers yeast, to add to the organisms an ability to fluoresce. This is a kit I hear a lot about and, presumably, it’s quite popular because of the tangible outcomes. After all, just about anyone can see they’ve been successful when the yeast begins to glow.
It gets way more serious, though. For just over a thousand dollars you can buy a multipurpose home genetic engineering lab. What these companies essentially do is use some openly-licenced equipment designs, as well as surplus lab equipment, that in the right hands can achieve some pretty amazing stuff.
Why is This a Good Thing?
After the initial amazement that genetic engineering technology is cheap and easy access fades a bit, it’s a fair question to ask “What is the point of it all?” Obviously, some of these kits are educational and are meant to serve as a more advanced high-school science project. The thing is, people are way more squeamish about the idea of genetic engineering than they are about people soldering their own circuit boards or doing basic chemistry experiments in their garages.
Just look at the generally ignorant debate around GMO foods and genetically modified animals. Putting spider silk genes in a goat does not in fact make the goat spider-like, but our collective imaginations don’t do us any favors. So it’s not surprising that a great many people feel a sense of revulsion towards the idea of messing around with genes.
In a way, that’s actually the most important function of these kits. By putting the basic processes and procedures of genetic engineering into the hands of the public, it takes away the mystery of the whole thing. Anyone can buy a kit and try it themselves. They can see that it’s a clear and understandable scientific method. There’s no arcane black magic superstition here. So home gene-editing kits could pave the way to better public understanding of the science, and less irrational resistance to it.
The opposite is also true. If the public has a better understanding of how gene editing works then they can also spot bad policies or be alert when companies are trying to do something that they shouldn’t. When it comes to good levels of public understanding of the science, then there isn’t really any downside to better overall knowledge. Well, almost no downsides.
What’s Bad About It?
There are more than a few voices out there that strongly disagree with the notion that regular Joes who buy a kit online should be messing around with the genes of living creatures, even if those creatures are just single-celled organisms. Apart from the long and complex ethical arguments against casual or amateur gene editing, there’s also the chance that someone may create something truly dangerous.
It’s not hard to imagine someone accidentally (or purposefully!) introducing a mutation in the genes of a common bacterium and then making something highly dangerous to people, other animal species, or the environment in general. For example, in 2016 it was reported that a Japanese scientist had found a type of bacteria that could eat plastic. The bacteria was found in a recycling plant and presumably evolved to take advantage of the material as a food source.
So let’s imagine that someone accidentally creates such a bacterium in their garage, but one that’s more aggressive or problematic in some other way. It could be a catastrophe no different from the dangers of self-replicating nanobots. Even if 99.9% of all hobbyist genetic engineers were doing harmless things in their home labs, disaster would still be only one accident or mistake away. If the hobby becomes more and more popular, then the chances of that one mistake happening is not trivial.
One of the reasons that these kits are making it into public hands is that there really aren’t any laws that can apply to this new situation. Most nations still need to figure out if and how these tools need to be regulated, but right now it’s a bit of a free-for-all.
The thing is, the chances of accidentally creating a pathogen is not particularly high and even highly-qualified scientists would have a hard time doing it on purpose. It would take a series of improbable accidents for something like this to happen, and it may very well happen in a professional lab too. Doing anything really impactful with a home kit or in a lab is hard. On balance, the good probably outweighs the bad. In any event, hobbyists are pretty serious about safety and organize themselves into clubs where newbies are educated about the right protocols and procedures.
Where Can This Lead?
As the cost of gene editing goes down and the ease of use goes up, we are likely to see more and more people get into it. I especially envision more small and medium businesses creating biological products using the technology. One early project that I backed is the Glowing Plants Kickstarter.
The goal of this project (which is still ongoing) is to create a plant that also provides light. Obviously, this is a much more involved project than making glowing yeast, but even so the minimum funding goal was a mere $650,000. That may sound like a lot in regular people money, but for a genetic engineering project like this, it’s pennies. This was back in 2013, and by now the costs have surely gone down.
The project actually got closer to $500,000, but the team has not yet been successful. Which goes to show, just because the tools are cheap doesn’t mean achieving your goal will be easy!
We may be entering a future where small businesses develop genetic products, which are then tested and produced by larger outfits with the really expensive infrastructure. We already have GM pets. Glofish, for example, are modified fish that come in various patented colors. The first Glofish were zebrafish, which makes sense since these are the fish equivalent of lab rats and most biologists would be very familiar with them. These days, the company is selling all sorts of fluorescent aquarium dwellers that are simply not found in nature.
Animals may be the flashiest gene products of the future, but plants also have a lot of potential. Apart from the glowing plant project I backed in 2013, there have also been projects that created plants which make the air in your home smell better. Really, I never thought that plants could be so exciting. Synthetic biology and the rise of home genetic engineering has a lot of applications and may one day be as common as people doing homebrew robotics or making model volcanoes.
Should You Do It at Home?
The big question is, of course, whether we should get into this at all. A lot depends on what your expectations are. If you have a genuine desire to learn and can’t or won’t pursue a career dedicated to genetics, then this could be a fantastic way to learn about genetic engineering.
It does, however, require a very serious mindset, incredible attention to detail, and the willingness to do a lot of tedious stuff in the name of safety and integrity. Basically, what I’m saying is that this isn’t really the most casual hobby you could take on. The best approach would be to get one of the predictable and guided kits that really only let you do one experiment. If you can do that right and start to read up on the theory behind what you are doing, then being a biohacker may be for you.
Home genetic engineering is probably also a hobby that really should be done in a group setting. There’s a lot of implicit knowledge involved in the actual practical job of gene editing. Trying to figure things out by yourself, especially when stuff is going wrong, can be almost impossible. Getting help from people who are already into it will just make life easier for everyone.
Someone Had To
Unless governments start to crack down, which they might, it was only going to be a matter of time before genetic engineering made its way from labs to kitchens and garages. After all, people mess around with biology all the time. We selectively breed animals and plants and have done so for thousands of years. So it makes sense that direct gene editing will intrigue all sorts of people.
Right now, it’s limited to some pretty harmless home science experiments. But, who knows? One day we may be creating synthetic life at a small scale the same way 3D printing will enable people to do small-scale manufacturing. For now, you’ll have to be happy with glow-in-the-dark yeast.