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Scientist or stuntman? Extreme biohackers become their own guinea pigs

"Biohackers" include independent biologists, wannabe scientists, even body modification fans; all pushing the limits and ethical boundaries of research.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Where the primordial swamp meets the post-punk era, a new breed of researchers have surfaced.

They’re called “biohackers,” a catchall term that includes independent biologists, wannabe scientists, even body modification fans; all pushing the limits and ethical boundaries of scientific research.

While biohackers are a diverse bunch, they share a belief in radical self-experimentation, everything from implanting glowing discs under their skin to altering their own genetic code.

This daring and sometimes dark science has taken root in labs around the world – including in Jacksonville.

“What I do is biohacking, and that is doing science and genetic engineering outside traditional environments,” said Dr. Josiah Zayner, a former NASA scientist and biochemistry Ph.D. who has built an international following as his own guinea pig.

His forearm is permanently scarred from experiments, including injecting his cells with DNA from a jellyfish and attempting to modify his genome using the gene-editing technology CRISPR in a gambit to enhance his muscles. He also took massive quantities of antibiotics to annihilate his gut biome – after a lifetime plagued by irritable bowel syndrome and replace it with the bacteria from a healthy friend. The process entailed ingesting the donor’s encapsulated fecal matter.

“I think science and genetic engineering should be accessible to everybody who will soon be able to do this stuff at home because it's really powerful,” Zayner said. “And it shouldn't be in the hands of just a few people.”

Zayner’s YouTube channel was deleted in December for violating terms of service, but he continues to reach fans through his website, the-Odin.com, where he sells Do It Yourself CRISPR kits for the low price of $169 and human tissue engineering kits for $500.

The world of biohacking has drawn fresh attention lately, with several new documentaries. One in particular, "Citizen Bio," tracks the rise and spectacular fall of venture capitalist and biohack evangelist Aaron Traywick, who famously dropped his pants at the annual BodyHacking Con in Austin in 2018 and injected himself with what he claimed was a herpes vaccine.

Part of the documentary takes place in Jacksonville, where Traywick funded a research lab, and had a spectacular breakup with his former partners, including Gabriel Licina. The Roselle Street laboratory is permanently shuttered, and Licina relocated his bioresearch company SciHouse to South Bend, Indiana. He says the experience helped define a rift in the biohacking community, separating scientists from stuntmen.

“Some people are leaning towards sensationalism," Licina said." And some people are leaning towards actually making good data. And making good data is hard.”

The motives of biohackers range widely. Some seem to do it for the cool factor. Magnets or discs inserted below the skin, often without anesthesia, are favored by so-called “Grinders” – biohackers who essentially aspire to become DIY cyborgs. The glowing “Northstar” rings made by Grindhouse Wetware are edgy and hold some promise, but at present do little more than a key fob.

Others biohack for art’s sake, like the Australian performance artist known as Stelarc who implanted a human ear on his forearm.

For Licina, biohacking is more about democratizing science than showmanship. “Biohacking is just doing biology. But sloppy," he says. "What we try to do is make things a little easier for people. We shouldn't just randomly cram needles into our bodies and see what happens.

Licina considers himself primarily a biologist, calling some of the more lurid biohacks “splashy nonsense.” This is not to say he hasn’t at times made his own splash.

In a 2015 video that quickly went viral, Gabriel tested out “night vision eyedrops” that turned both eyeballs a terrifying black. He says he was able to perceive some things in the dark more keenly but lived to regret the experiment.

“That was exciting for a little while," Licina says. "And then I realized that it wasn't valuable. I thought that the attention was going to get more funds to move the research forward. But attention doesn't equal money, and money doesn't actually equal data.”

High profile experiments can help raise money for research – but also pose ethical dilemmas.

“The boundary that I think biohackers should not cross, right?” said Zayner. That line, I think, is when things start to get, you know, extremely harmful.”

Even Zayner, who says his genetic biohacks have turned him into a “human/animal hybrid” believes guardrails are needed.

“As I get older, I get more risk-averse," he said. "I'm not trying to be a martyr. I'm not trying to risk or sacrifice my life. So you know, the risk is within a reasonable tolerance.”

If his only limit is his imagination, however, Zayner is far from reaching his ceiling.

“It’s not necessarily to be like ‘now I have superpowers!'” Zayner says of his DNA experiments. “Though, I do hope to have superpowers in the future.”

 

 

 

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