Armed with his PhD in biophysics, Josiah Zayner is a biohacker, someone who experiments on his own body and other organisms outside of traditional labs and institutions. He left a research fellowship at NASA to start a company called The ODIN in Oakland, California, where he sells do-it-yourself kits for CRISPR, the gene editing technology, and holds classes to teach people how to genetically modify bacteria, frogs, and other organisms.
According to Zayner, the two-year-old company grossed over $500,000 last year and has taught tens of thousands of people how to use CRISPR. The ODIN’s first-floor office space on a residential street is a definite upgrade from the garage where Zayner started the company in 2016. Soon, he says, his team will move to a more industrial lab setting.
Zayner became notorious in 2017 for publicly injecting himself with CRISPR at a synthetic biology conference. He later told The Atlantic that he regrets doing the stunt because of its effects on other biohackers. Leading researchers say the technology is still too new to safely use on humans. According to Neville Sanjana, who’s on the faculty at the New York Genome Center, major issues include “inadequate consent, knowledge of potential risks, and imprecise editing outcomes with potentially unknown consequences.”
Biologist Paul Knoepfler told me that Zayner’s work prompted conflicting reactions: “reckless but thought provoking…attention seeking, but serving an educational purpose.” Zayner is a polarizing figure–and fully aware of the fact. He joked when we met that maybe he should consider wearing white instead of black for the interview (he wore both).
Watch our video above to meet Josiah Zayner and explore his work at The ODIN.