What Happened When KQED Used a CRISPR Kit to Hack DNA

In most scientific fields, getting your hands on cutting-edge technology is difficult to impossible. No DIY particle physicists are able to measure the mass of the Higgs Boson in their garage. Access to the most powerful telescopes is hard to come by even for professional astronomers. But this needn’t necessarily be the case in biology.

A few months ago when I was reporting a piece for KQED, about Silicon Valley entrepreneurs embracing CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology, I came across a fascinating person. Josiah Zayner had recently left his job as a synthetic biologist at NASA in order to become a full-time “biohacker.” He now sells kits to bio-enthusiasts who, like him, yearn to tinker with bacterial or yeast DNA on their evenings and weekends.

"When you read about CRISPR it just sounds like magic," he says. "A lot of the time when you read about new science it's not actually tangible. In CRISPR I saw an opportunity. It's cutting-edge, yet it's so accessible that you can use it in your home, on your kitchen table. You can learn about cutting-edge science by actually doing it."

Zayner's kit, which sells for $140, has limited applications.  You couldn't use the kit to alter your own genes, for example.  It's basic citizen science that offers a lens into an innovative scientific process.

The DIY bacterial CRISPR kit from ODIN sells for $140.
The DIY bacterial CRISPR kit from ODIN sells for $140. (The ODIN)

The CRISPR gene-editing technology, which allows scientists to make changes to specific cells,  has created a lot of excitement in the scientific world.   At its most basic, the CRISPR/Cas9 system has three components: the Cas9 enzyme which acts as a sort of molecular scissors, guide RNA to lead the scissors to the right spot to cut, and template DNA which takes the place of the 'old' DNA that has been snipped out.

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In the three years since the first scientific papers on  CRISPR were published,  a number of applications have been researched. Want to breed more shelf-stable mushrooms or higher-yield corn? CRISPR has helped with that.  Want to bring back wooly mammoths? CRISPR has edged scientists closer to that goal.

Many expect CRISPR will one day have a dramatic impact on medicine. It is being used to target HIV, Alzheimer's and various cancers.  The gene editing tool has also raised concerns  about creating "designer babies." Experiments in Sweden, China and the United Kingdom have been approved to attempt the editing of human embryos. One team wants to correct a mutation that causes a blood disease, another wants to introduce a mutation that makes humans resistant to HIV infection.

Setting aside for the moment the potential promise and peril of a future with genetically-designed organisms, we here at KQED thought it might be fun to give one of Zayner's DIY CRISPR kits a whirl.

He sent us a kit that lets you engineer E. coli bacteria so that they can live on a nutrient medium that they otherwise can't. To see the experiment in action watch the video at the top of this post.

After the first day, we showed the yeast could grow on the substance on the right (see the whitish lines?), but was unable to grow on the substance on the left. Next: alter the yeast’s DNA to make it able to grow on the toxic substance.
After the first day, we showed the yeast could grow on the substance on the right (see the whitish lines?), but was unable to grow on the substance on the left. Next: alter the yeast’s DNA to make it able to grow on the toxic substance. (Adam Grossberg)

A few questions you might be asking: Did their experiment really work? And is everything here totally safe?

To make sure we showed our results to Zayner, who confirmed that, yes, we had actually managed to transform the bacteria. (We cheered.)

Regarding safety, it's hard to guarantee anything is "totally safe." That said, nothing sent to us in the box was a controlled substance. For example, the bacterial strain in the kit (E. coli HME63) is classified as Biosafety level 1, meaning it does not cause sickness in humans. Agar (the "nutrient jello") is a gel-like substance that comes from seaweed. It's used in Asian cooking and to treat diabetes and constipation.

We did wear protective gloves and cleaned our working space, trying to remember best practices from our college biology classes.

Now, Zayner's attitudes do differ from others in the DIY biological community. For example, his tutorial videos show lab material being stored in the freezer, refrigerator or kitchen countertop. Other members of the Do-It-Yourself Biology community are policing themselves under a code of conduct developed in 2011 that frowns upon such practices. Zayner dismisses these concerns as overly cautious. "There is nothing here that can hurt you," he says.

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Discussions about how DIY biologists should behave will likely rage on, as will issues over how genetic engineering and its products should be regulated. Meanwhile, Zayner's company "The Odin" is struggling to keep up with demand.

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