After a virus was created from mail-order DNA, scientists are sounding the alarm about the genetic tinkering carried out in garages and living rooms.
By Emily Baumgaertner –
WASHINGTON — As a teenager, Keoni Gandall already was operating a cutting-edge research laboratory in his bedroom in Huntington Beach, Calif. While his friends were buying video games, he acquired more than a dozen pieces of equipment — a transilluminator, a centrifuge, two thermocyclers — in pursuit of a hobby that once was the province of white-coated Ph.D.’s in institutional labs.
“I just wanted to clone DNA using my automated lab robot and feasibly make full genomes at home,” he said.
Mr. Gandall was far from alone. In the past few years, so-called biohackers across the country have taken gene editing into their own hands. As the equipment becomes cheaper and the expertise in gene-editing techniques, mostly Crispr-Cas9, more widely shared, citizen-scientists are attempting to re-engineer DNA in surprising ways.
Until now, the work has amounted to little more than D.I.Y. misfires. A year ago, a biohacker famously injected himself at a conference with modified DNA that he hoped would make him more muscular. (It did not.)
Earlier this year, at Body Hacking Con in Austin, Tex., a biotech executive injected himself with what he hoped would be a herpes treatment. (Verdict: No.) His company already had live-streamed a man injecting himself with a home-brewed treatment for H.I.V. (His viral load increased.)
In a recent interview, Mr. Gandall, now 18 and a research fellow at Stanford, said he only wants to ensure open access to gene-editing technology, believing future biotech discoveries may come from the least expected minds.
But he is quick to acknowledge that the do-it-yourself genetics revolution one day may go catastrophically wrong.
“Even I would tell you, the level of DNA synthesis regulation, it simply isn’t good enough,” Mr. Gandall said. “These regulations aren’t going to work when everything is decentralized — when everybody has a DNA synthesizer on their smartphone.”
The most pressing worry is that someone somewhere will use the spreading technology to create a bioweapon.
Already a research team at the University of Alberta has recreated from scratch an extinct relative of smallpox, horsepox, by stitching together fragments of mail-order DNA in just six months for about $100,000 — without a glance from law enforcement officials.
The team purchased overlapping DNA fragments from a commercial company. Once the researchers glued the full genome together and introduced it into cells infected by another type of poxvirus, the cells began to produce infectious particles.age
To some experts, the experiment nullified a decades-long debate over whether to destroy the world’s two remaining smallpox remnants — at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and at a research center in Russia — since it proved that scientists who want to experiment with the virus can now create it themselves.
The study’s publication in the journal PLOS One included an in-depth description of the methods used and — most alarming to Gregory D. Koblentz, the director of the biodefense graduate program at George Mason University — a series of new tips and tricks for bypassing roadblocks.
“Sure, we’ve known this could be possible,” Dr. Koblentz said. “We also knew North Korea could someday build a thermonuclear weapon, but we’re still horrified when they actually do it.”
Experts urged the journal to cancel publication of the article, one calling it “unwise, unjustified, and dangerous.” Even before publication, a report from a World Health Organization meeting noted that the endeavor “did not require exceptional biochemical knowledge or skills, significant funds or significant time.”
But the study’s lead researcher, David Evans, a virologist at the University of Alberta, said he had alerted several Canadian government authorities to his poxvirus venture, and none had raised an objection.
(For the balance of this important article please visit: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/14/science/biohackers-gene-editing-virus.html/)