Biohackers Are Now Using CRISPR

Don’t worry, they’re really only interested in making beer
crispr gene editing

Americans are okay with gene editing human embryos, as long as the tweak will cure a harmful genetic disease the baby is destined to get. Screenshot; video by McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT

The advent of enzyme complex CRISPR/Cas9 has ushered in a new age of genetic manipulation—it could help us cure diseases or resuscitate extinct species. One of CRISPR’s big advantages is that it’s much easier to use than its predecessors. So easy, in fact, that amateur biohackers are using it in their experiments, according to a report from Nature News.

It’s natural to be nervous about this. CRISPR is a powerful tool that scientists don’t fully understand, and it can have unintended consequences even when used cautiously. Ever since April, when a team of Chinese researchers published their findings after using CRISPR to change the genes of human embryos, the discussion has reached a fever pitch. Experts have been discussing the issue of consent (embryos can’t consent to having their genes manipulated, and the effects could be passed down for generations), the consequences of introducing an unintended change, and the effects on the ecosystem should a genetically manipulated animal break free from the lab.

But a lot of these concerns are isolated to some of the most advanced labs in the world. Yes, CRISPR is easy to use, but it’s not that easy to get the exact results you want, even for the experts. It’s highly unlikely that an amateur biohacker with little scientific knowledge could use CRISPR to create an unstoppable virus or change the human genome. It’s just too difficult.

Plus, biohackers don’t seem to be into that in the first place. The biohackers highlighted in the Nature News piece are more interested in engineering yeast to make unique beer or vegan cheese, or changing the color of a flower. On one message board, a biohacker with the alias plambe planned to use CRISPR to modify stress hormone receptors in plants in order to “deliver shit wherever I want when I want in the nucleus.”

Biohackers working with CRISPR still need to be careful—the U.S. Bioterrorism Protection Team has been casually monitoring biohackers over the past few years, the Nature News piece notes, likely to make sure they’re not making any biological weapons—but it’s unlikely any of them will be able to realize experts’ worst fears about CRISPR’s consequences. Not that they’d want to, anyway.