I could use bigger muscles, but I’m not going to get them with biotech in my garage

Josiah Zayner is a self-proclaimed bio-hacker. He sells CRISPR/CAS9 home gene editing kits, and he goes to conferences where he publicly injects himself with chemicals to modify his own genes. For instance, at a biotech conference, he got up on stage and injected himself with a cocktail to knock out the myostatin gene, to give himself “bigger muscles”.

If you want to genetically modify yourself, it turns out, it’s not necessarily complicated. As he offered samples in small baggies to the crowd, Zayner explained that it took him about five minutes to make the DNA that he brought to the presentation. The vial held Cas9, an enzyme that snips DNA at a particular location targeted by guide RNA, in the gene-editing system known as CRISPR. In this case, it was designed to knock out the myostatin gene, which produces a hormone that limits muscle growth and lets muscles atrophy. In a study in China, dogs with the edited gene had double the muscle mass of normal dogs. If anyone in the audience wanted to try it, they could take a vial home and inject it later. Even rubbing it on skin, Zayner said, would have some effect on cells, albeit limited.

He does not look particularly muscular in his photos.

He’s a snake-oil salesman. He’s doing this demonstration, confident that nothing will go wrong, because he must know that this is a spectacularly inefficient way to use CRISPR/CAS9. I looked over his website, and there’s no information on the frequency of incorporation of his edited sequence into cells, or even on whether they’ve seen any phenotypic effects with this approach. I suspect there’s little effect, which is a good thing. Even if he does get incorporation into some cells, he’s not going to get much of a result — myostatin affects the growth and differentiation of myocytes (it’s not going to do a lot for an adult), and regulates protein synthesis in muscle cells, which could, in fact, promote more ‘bulking up’ of existing muscle mass.

That’s not necessarily a good thing. Cardiac hypertrophy is not something you want to have, and Zayner isn’t exactly controlling delivery of his reagents to specific subsets of muscle cells.

But again, he’s almost certainly not getting enough DNA modification to have either his desired result or a deleterious result. He’s just gambling that the injections will be innocuous enough that they won’t actually do anything except look impressive to the rubes. Here’s hoping he doesn’t get erroneous editing of random cells so that basically, all he’s doing is giving himself a low-dose mutagen.

George Church is the voice of reason on this one.

If you modify your DNA, it’s possible to then sequence your DNA to see if you made the targeted change. But a garage experiment also can’t provide as much information as more conventional methods. “You can confirm that you’ve altered the DNA, but that doesn’t mean that it’s safe and effective,” says George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School (who also serves as an advisor to Zayner’s tamer kit company, recognizing the value of a biology-literate public in what’s being called the century of biology). “All it does is tells you that you’ve molecularly done the right thing, but it could be unsafe because you’ve also done something off-target. It could be ineffective in the sense that not enough cells were altered, or it’s too late in life and the damage has already been done.” If a baby is born with microcephaly, for example, changing the genes in its body likely won’t be able to change the effects of the condition on its brain.

Zayner’s vial of CAS9 myostatin knock-out juice is really cheap, at only $20. It also makes me wonder about quality control and safety at his workplace, though. I’d worry more about contaminants in a random vial of fluids that I’m expected to inject into my bloodstream than that it contains the latest biotech buzzword.


  1. chris61 says

    What Zayner is selling for $20 is a bacterial stab. All the quality control re the plasmid preparation would be up to the buyer.

  2. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    I’m sure the FDA would be interested in his facility. They take a dim view of unvalidated parenteral medicines.

  3. chris61 says

    @2 Caine

    Which is put together and packaged in his garage.

    Why should that make any difference? Assuming one has the appropriate equipment to synthesize a plasmid, insert it into bacteria and perform the appropriate tests on its efficacy, it really doesn’t matter where the equipment is located.

    @3 Nerd

    I’m sure the FDA would be interested in his facility. They take a dim view of unvalidated parenteral medicines.

    I’m not sure the FDA would care since he’s not labeling anything he sells as a medicine.

  4. some bastard on the internet says

    Why should that make any difference? Assuming one has the appropriate equipment to synthesize a plasmid, insert it into bacteria and perform the appropriate tests on its efficacy, it really doesn’t matter where the equipment is located.

    Keyword there.

  5. chris61 says

    @7 Everything is commercially available so it’s not exactly a stretch to make that assumption.

  6. unclefrogy says

    my bet is he is injecting himself with a saline solution and doing the old switcheroo when he starts handing out the miracle cure he is selling.
    uncle frogy

  7. Matrim says

    Why should that make any difference? Assuming one has the appropriate equipment to synthesize a plasmid, insert it into bacteria and perform the appropriate tests on its efficacy, it really doesn’t matter where the equipment is located.

    I mean, it kinda does if you’re doing that in the same room you keep your lawnmower and change your car’s oil, where the mice come in when it’s cold. A garage isn’t the best place for contamination control. They’re generally relatively dirty, tend to have direct lines of external contamination (there generally being only one barrier, generally poorly sealed, between the room you’re working in and the whole of the outside world), and aren’t particularly suited for contamination control.

    Can you safely do that stuff in a garage? It’s possible, but it’s a lot of work and investment that I doubt a snake oil salesman who’s looking to make a quick buck would be able to do (or would even bother with).

  8. Matrim says

    I just notieced I put contamination control twice (what I get for not proofreading after I rewrote some bits), but it’s fitting that it emphasizes how hard it would be to have proper contamination control in a residential garage.

  9. chrislawson says

    To quote a paper helpfully titled “Lack of myostatin results in excessive muscle growth but impaired force generation”:

    The myostatin gene encodes a member of the TGF-β family of signaling molecules and has been highly conserved throughout vertebrate evolution. This finding, together with the extremely rare incidence of spontaneous mutations within the gene, points to biological advantage and associated evolutionary constraints on muscle size by this pathway. In some respects, this is paradoxical, because muscularity has been positively associated with vigor and reproductive fitness. Such views may have neglected a critical evaluation of the functional aspects of muscle hypertrophy induced by the absence of myostatin. Doubts of this sort are indirectly supported by the observation that this increase in muscle mass is not accompanied by a proportionate increase in muscle force. Furthermore, cattle with hereditary muscular hypertrophy (double-muscled cattle), many of which have been shown to harbor mutations in the myostatin (Mstn) gene, are actually prone to muscle damage after mild exercise.

  10. chrislawson says

    chris61, you sound more like a shill for Zayner than an honest commenter, especially when you misrepresent the FDA’s regulatory role.

    A drug is defined as:
    — A substance recognized by an official pharmacopoeia or formulary.
    — A substance intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease.
    A substance (other than food) intended to affect the structure or any function of the body.
    — A substance intended for use as a component of a medicine but not a device or a component, part or accessory of a device.
    — Biological products are included within this definition and are generally covered by the same laws and regulations, but differences exist regarding their manufacturing processes (chemical process versus biological process.)

  11. says

    If getting human cells to accept DNA insertions was that easy, gene therapy would be a lot further along than it is right now. Here’s hoping this dumb@ss doesn’t start encouraging people to inject themselves with random retroviruses he cobbled together in his garage.

  12. chris61 says

    @13 chrislawson
    The plasmid itself would seem to be subject to FDA regulation but is a bacterial stab? Wouldn’t that be like regulating poppies because they can be used to make opium?

  13. unclefrogy says

    there is one species of poppy that produces opium and it is illegal to plant it in the U. S. A. though legal else where. so it depends where you are what is OK or not
    I seem to get the impression that the FDA has been some what controversial with regards as to how it does its job of regulation lately. The question really is should it regulate this particular case or not and why.
    uncle frogy

  14. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Chrisy61, asshole.

    ’m not sure the FDA would care since he’s not labeling anything he sells as a medicine.

    If you think you understand what the FDA regulates,. re-educate yourself immediately, before they put their padlock on you. If it ain’t a neutraceutical (ie, ingested like glucosamine), it is a drug. END OF STORY.
    Stop pretending you know more than folks in the field. It only makes YOU look stupid. History of FDA. I know because I received yearly training….

  15. says

    RE: FDA. Couldn’t he just use the all-purpose scammers disclaimer: “for entertainment purposes only” and be fine?

  16. chris61 says

    I think you missed my point. He’s not selling anything that is injectable or ingestable for that matter. Well, I suppose you could eat the bacterial stab but does the FDA look at everything that is capable of being ingested although clearly not intended to be? He’s selling something that if you follow some relatively simple instructions using commercially available equipment could be made into something injectable (although the product description includes disclaimers that it is not injectable and not for human use).
    I assume if enough people purchased the product, followed the instructions and had adverse reactions after injecting it then maybe the FDA would do something about it. But I don’t know. How far does the FDA go to regulate do-it-yourself tattoo kits or kits for any other form of body modification?

  17. chrislawson says

    chris61, except he’s not just selling CRISPR tools. He publicly injected himself with a myostatin-knockout “cocktail” and then handed out packets to the public. That meets the FDA’s definition of a “substance (other than food) intended to affect the structure or any function of the body.”

    And besides that, the FDA also regulates medical devices. The FDA definition of a medical device includes: “an instrument, apparatus, implement, machine, contrivance, implant, in vitro reagent, or other similar or related article, including a component part, or accessory which is…intended to affect the structure or any function of the body of man or other animals, and which does not achieve its primary intended purposes through chemical action within or on the body of man or other animals and which is not dependent upon being metabolized for the achievement of any of its primary intended purposes.”

    Now you’re quite correct that he can sell a CRISPR kit and has no way of stopping people from injecting the products they make with it…which is really no different from many other common household tools like water filters, juicers, etc. People can inject themselves with the output of those machines even if it’s bad for them. But you might notice that water filter and juicer manufacturers don’t give public demonstrations claiming that injecting yourself with filtered water or orange juice will give you more muscles.

  18. chris61 says

    The stuff he was handing out – I could see that being a problem depending upon how it was manufactured and if and how it was labeled. But claiming that injecting yourself with it will give you more muscles – at least the one youtube video I saw he was pretty clear that you would probably have to inject yourself an awful lot and whether or not it would give you more muscles was still up in the air. In any case my original comment in this thread was only to point out that what he was selling for $20 wasn’t an injectable product.