In Brooklyn, Even Genetic Engineering Has Gone DIY

In Brooklyn, Even Genetic Engineering Has Gone DIY
Illustration by Kai & Sunny

"HACKING IS NOT A CRIME," blasts a block-lettered bumper sticker slapped on the door to the laboratory on the fifth floor of a sprawling former factory building in Downtown Brooklyn. "Hacking," in this case, is shorthand for "bio-hacking"; it's a kind of half-motto, half–bill of services for Genspace NYC, New York's first and only DIY biological laboratory. For a monthly fee, anyone from credentialed scientists to mere enthusiasts can get access to the biotechnology equipment it houses, as well as classes on genetic engineering and lab techniques. Tonight's workshop had drawn an enthusiastic crowd; Genspace's little communal kitchen was full to the brim. (The session sold out in two hours.) "This could change everything!" said a pharmacy student with unbridled excitement. A few people in the kitchen nodded meaningfully.

They'd all come to learn how to use CRISPR, molecular "tools" derived from the chemistry of microbes that have taken the bioengineering world from messing with yeast DNA to editing human embryos in four years flat. Advances keep arriving at light-speed, but fear of unintended consequences has followed close behind. Some fret that in the future, the new technique might unwittingly (or wittingly) unleash diabolical bioweapons or inject some loathsome modification into the human gene pool. But tonight, attendees were just learning how to make yeast turn red.

We piled into the freight elevator, sank down one flight, and funneled into a little classroom, where Ellen Jorgensen was cuing up a PowerPoint. Jorgensen, a co-founder of Genspace, is a molecular biologist and a veteran of the DIY biolab movement. Meddling with yeasts' genetic material in order to, say, turn the single-celled organisms pink, or make a colony of them glow fluorescent green in a petri dish is the "Chopsticks" of learning to unleash CRISPR tools on living DNA, said Jorgensen. That bumper sticker upstairs points to the unthreatening nature of the project at hand: "If you're doing these things to modify cells in a dish," she reminds the room, "those cells aren't going to jump out of the dish and get you."

Jorgensen opens her slides with a quote from a 2015 Wired cover story she rather liked: "Depending on what kind of person you are, CRISPR makes you see a gleaming world of the future, a Nobel medallion, or dollar signs." It might also make you see the end of the world as we know it, a Wild West of genetic modification without limits, a god in every micropipette. It's the agony and ecstasy of the brave new world of CRISPR. Jorgensen captures the room with her stare: "We've never really had this kind of power before."

CRISPR Cas-9 is the full name for the biochemical scissors some bacteria use to snip out damage done to their genes by invading viruses. By studying "wild" CRISPR Cas-9 molecules, scientists figured out how to program the molecules to cut DNA at any two locations they desire. The DNA's host cell, reading the excision as a gaping wound needing to be fixed, goes looking for other scraps of DNA that might fill the gap. Scientists supply the cell with a strip of genetic material of their choice: Easily duped, the cell will patch the DNA strand with it, integrating all that new information into its genome.

That, let me tell you, is the simplified version. And yet the basic procedure for exquisitely targeted gene insertion is only getting simpler — it isn't hard to imagine a future where we'll fix everything from eye problems to liver disorders to muscular dystrophy with targeted genetic tweaks. (Three companies have already made deals to begin developing therapeutics based on CRISPR.) The technique might even lead to cheap and abundant transplant organs. "We want to use pigs for replacement parts, because they're so much like us," Jorgensen explains to the room. "One of the problems is that there are certain types of retroviruses embedded in the genomes for all pigs." But George Church, a geneticist at Harvard, was recently able to edit those retroviruses out using CRISPR.

In fact, improvements to the system — as well as to the software and lab devices that enable it — are rolling in so quickly that regulations clarifying who should have access to the technology, and how far is too far, have not kept up. That lag hasn't been helped by the fact that two parties, the University of California, Berkeley and the Harvard- and MIT-affiliated Broad Institute, are currently locked in one of the most contentious patent wars in living memory, arguing over who actually discovered CRISPR — and thus who has the right to make money off of it.

The oversight gap has also led a group of scientists and ethicists, including Jennifer Doudna, a co-inventor of the technology, to issue a letter last year urging the whole CRISPR train to slow its roll until everyone could agree on some limits.

"It raises the most fundamental of issues about how we are going to view our humanity in the future...and in a sense take control of our genetic destiny, which raises enormous peril for humanity," George Q. Daley, a stem cell expert at Boston Children's Hospital who signed the letter, told the New York Times at the time.

All Jorgensen had to do to get her hands on CRISPR was order the materials from a wholesaler — at a cost of about $60 — and sign a contract promising she had no commercial intentions and wouldn't let any of the material leave her laboratory. That makes some people very wary of DIY labs like Genspace. The facility is not affiliated with any university or research institution — nearly unheard of for a biolab — and members simply pay $100 a month for access, "like a gym membership," Jorgensen says. Nor does one need to have a Ph.D. to join up. "People assume that when somebody has a Ph.D., what they're doing is going to be safer," Jorgensen says. "I'm not so sure about that."

In today's class, we all logged on to a website to download and fiddle with the yeast genome — a plain-text file with a bazillion combinations of the letters G, A, T, and C — but it wouldn't load for half the room. It felt entirely plausible that two dozen people had never tried to access the yeast genome site at the same time. "I think we crashed it," someone said. "I could read it out one letter at a time," quipped Adam, a computer scientist at a financial services firm, who came with his boyfriend on a double date. "It's so cool how the language of computer science is coming to genetic engineering," he said. "We're literally copying and pasting here." Hacking with code can be a crime when it's done to computer databases. Genetic "hacking" laws, however, are still in the making.

Jorgensen deadpanned to the class about all the calls she's been getting from journalists hoping to braid CRISPR fears and longstanding suspicions about labs like hers into one angsty story. "Inside the garage labs of DIY gene hackers, whose hobby may terrify you," reads one particularly lurid headline at Fusion.

"We decided to teach this class mainly because we were forced to by the press," Jorgensen laments. "It seems like every time something new and potentially scary comes up, the press gets it in their head to write, 'Well, what if the DIY people get to it?' "

Genspace has strict safety rules — no handling anything that might infect a human, for example — and the membership's interests lean more twee than nefarious. One man uses the lab to DNA-sequence mushrooms he finds around New York. An artist named Heather Dewey-Hagborg used the lab to extract genetic material from chewed gum and cigarette butts she collected off the sidewalk, and then used that data to 3-D-print portraits of people she'd never met. A fifteen-year-old diagnosed with ADHD is using the lab to investigate whether it can be linked to a specific genetic variant — he uses Genspace's equipment to analyze DNA he collects from his own body and, with permission from his high school, has begun collecting samples from other kids in his class, too. It's a place for hobbyists, sure, but hobbyists can make meaningful discoveries, too: A high school sophomore made national headlines last year for inventing a new means of detecting pancreatic cancer; he'd written two hundred sanctioned laboratories asking for a place to do that research, and only one said yes.

The lab, stuffed with used machines and stainless steel workbenches scavenged from a closed restaurant, isn't exactly the sort of place where malevolent amateurs could manage to edit a human embryo and unleash a designer baby, or even a designer squirrel, on the gene pool. "As far as I know none of us are practicing small animal surgery," Jorgensen assures me. "Everyone understands that that's just nuts." Besides, in New York City, there are laws against conducting experiments on anything with a backbone without proper facilities, permits, and rigorous inspections. "You can't just take your pet goldfish out of its bowl and start messing with it."

That doesn't mean some people aren't, of course: In February, the U.K. granted the first researcher permission to use CRISPR to modify very early-stage human embryos, no older than seven days. "It's not like it looks like a baby yet," Jorgensen says. The research could unveil clues as to what factors are critical to human development, and how they can go wrong. We're not terribly far off, Jorgensen adds, from being able to edit a fetus that may otherwise be born with a genetic abnormality. "If you could have a kid who could, at a very early stage, be tweaked and made whole, you'd probably do it."

Oliver Medvedik, a visiting bioengineering professor at Cooper Union and another co-founder of Genspace, led the technical portion of the evening. At an hour in, Medvedik turned to the audience and asked, "I figure everyone here is up on their codons?" The computational chemist to my right chuckled lightly, like he'd just asked a roomful of teenagers whether they'd ever used Snapchat. (A codon is "a triplet of adjacent nucleotides in the messenger RNA chain that codes for a specific amino acid in the synthesis of a protein molecule," Google later reveals.)

"Now you just oligo-anneal them and do straight-pour cloning," Medvedik said a few minutes later, finishing a deck of slides. "That's all there is to it." Sure.

After the presentations, one question hovered the room: How do I get started?

"If I wanted to build this in my house, how much would it cost?" asked Adam, the double-dater, gesturing at the lab equipment.

"You can get one of these for $500 on eBay," replied Medvedik, pointing to a DNA-copying machine the size of a toaster oven. Adding the cost of pipettes, centrifuges, and precision scales, he explained, anyone could get going for about $5,000. If you can afford a used Honda, you can afford your own garage gene-editing lab.

"Not bad," Adam said, taking notes.

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