When the future of genetic engineering arrived on Sebastian Cocioba’s doorstep, it was affixed to the back of a postcard from Austria with a little bit of packing tape.
Cocioba is a 25-year-old college dropout whose primary interest is tinkering with plant genetics in a lab he cobbled together from eBay. The lab is located in the spare bedroom of his parent’s lavish apartment in Long Island City, across the river from Manhattan. A few months ago, an internet friend from an online bio-hacking forum had sent him the lab’s latest addition: attached to that postcard was Crispr-Cas9.
Deposited onto a flimsy fragment of filter paper and wrapped in plastic, it looked like a tab of acid. But inside that crude packaging was the key to an incredibly precise DNA-editing technology that will revolutionize the world.
Crispr—a memorable acronym for the mouthful, “clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats”—gives scientists an unprecedented ability to decrypt and reorder genes, opening up a dazzling and terrifying universe of possibilities. This year, a top national security official called gene-editing a weapon of mass destruction—along with nuclear detonation, chemical weapons and cruise missiles—because it could be used to create “potentially harmful biological agents or products.”
Crispr is every sci-fi future that we have ever dreamed about or feared: designer babies, unlimited energy, and the end of genetic diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Researchers have used Crispr to make wheat resistant to a damaging blight; to alter 62 pig genes so they could, theoretically, grow human organs for transplant; and to edit a human embryo to repair a gene that causes a fatal blood disorder. But the biggest bonus in the eyes of DIY biohackers is that it makes at-home genetic experimentation astonishingly accessible.
“If the genome was a book and you wanted to sneak a sentence into the middle and make it look like it was there the whole time, Crispr can do that,” Cocioba explained, vibrating with enthusiasm as he held between his thumb and forefinger a plastic-wrapped Pandora’s box.
Crispr, which arrived on the science scene in 2012, has made genetic engineering simpler, faster, and cheaper—and galvanized the movement of DIY scientists who want to try their hand at genetically modifying plants, insects, animals, and, someday, maybe even humans.
David Ishee, a 30-year-old Mississippi resident who never attended college, first started doing at-home experiments after seeing kits to make glowing plants online.
“My little lab is in my shed,” Ishee told me. “I have all the typical equipment and chemicals for genetic engineering and I built it for less than $1,000.”
Crispr, he said, will vastly expand the kind of experiments he’s able to do at home. Software like DeskGen already allows anyone to easily design custom DNA sequences and then have them delivered to their doorstep for a few hundred dollars. Crispr will allow Ishee to then insert those genes into a host organism with relative ease.