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Jo Zayner - Biohacking is not a crime
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Jo Zayner - Biohacking is not a crime

CEO of the-odin.com, mad pirate king of biotech. Jo Zayner is a leader in the biohacking movement. He has experience in modifying his gut microbiome, genetically modifying himself with CRISPR, creating a coronavirus vaccine, and culturing cells... all DIY and @ home!

In this episode:

  • How and why he started a biotech startup

  • Why and how he started his biotech startup

  • Why medicine continues to be primitive

  • Outcomes of creating a coronavirus vaccine at home

Josiah’s journey

From computer science to life sciences

SOFIA: Josiah, thank you so much for being here. It’s the first time that we meet 1:1, and I really appreciate your time, so let’s start right away. I recently read that before getting into biohacking you were a computer programmer at Motorola. What seemed appealing about biology? Why transition from computer science to life sciences?

JOSIAH: oh gosh! I can’t believe you read that. That’s so long ago. You know, I grew up in the 90s during like the time personal computing became big. Computer hacking was this thing that was mostly about getting people access to information, knowledge, and technology, and it really worked, obviously. We wouldn’t be able to do anything we can do today with technology if it wasn’t because of computer hackers, independent computer programmers like myself, who taught themselves how to do this stuff, were working for big companies and made all their software free and open source. So that really had a huge influence on the way I do stuff with science and biology. Nowadays, most biology researchers and biotech companies are making breakthroughs in genetic engineering, but nobody gets to share that stuff and that’s super sad. The reason that computers are where they are today is because even the big companies shared the knowledge and information that they gained. If the transistor wasn’t licensed liberally as it was, we wouldn’t be where we are today.

And it’s crazy that you listen to all these interviews. “Biology is technology” and it’s like “Why do you keep it to yourself then? Why don’t you make it available so people can build cool stuff?”

Starting The Odin

SOFIA: is that probably the reason why you started The Odin? To try to democratize biology and to try to make it more like technology?

JOSIAH: well, what happened was I was trying to do experiments at my home, and I was trying to buy stuff like pipettes from Alibaba, and Ampicillin from eBay, but there was no centralized location. It was difficult to get started. This was over 10 years ago, so I scraped up like two thousand dollars, I bought some stuff, and started selling it. What people need is a place where they can just go and be like “hey, I need a pipette, and some antibiotics, Petri plates, and I don’t want to go to five different websites that sell to biohackers”. I saw a need there and I wanted to help other people who wanted to do experiments on their homes.

SOFIA: interesting, but were there many biohackers apart from you in that time?

JOSIAH: no. The first year I probably sold two thousand dollars and most of that money came from one order. When I worked at NASA I would still ship stuff on the weekends or something, but yeah, there weren’t many people at all. It’s growing though. The amount of money we made in a month we make in a day now and it’s just like “wow. It’s crazy”.

SOFIA: yeah, and I suppose that now it’s not only for biohackers, but also for people who want to become biohackers and for people who are just curious about learning more about biotech?

JOSIAH: it’s just for people who are interested and stuff. I think that’s the cool thing. You don’t need to be interested in computers to own a computer, a smartphone or something like that; you just use the technology. That’s where I hope biotechnology eventually goes: that we’re just familiar with it and it’s part of our lives.

Getting investment for a biotech company

SOFIA: I was doing some research on how The Odin started and I found this article that you wrote about the time that you traveled to an island with Peter Thiel. I believe that you mention that you wanted to get The Odin into Y-Combinator, but for some reason it didn’t work. Why do you think that people didn’t want to invest in The Odin?

JOSIAH: oh gosh, getting investment for a company is crazy. Number one, I think The Odin is way ahead of its times still. We need 5, 10, 20 years before people realize what’s actually going on. I see how big biohacking is growing and how fast it’s growing because I’ve been here since the beginning and I’ve seen everything, and it’s hard to bring somebody else into that world and help them understand the potential of what is going on. It’s like, what the fuck,

even if The Odin wasn’t going to make any money, this is going to be talked about and written about.

Nobody can tell when they’re living inside a revolution. Nobody who lived in the computer revolution was like “oh, I’m part of the computer revolution”. You only realize it after it’s over. I think the same thing is happening with biotech, and nobody realizes it, because if they did, they’d just be freaking out and throwing money at me.

But also, The Odin is a very non-traditional company: we sell physical products that are hard to ship and store. Physical products don’t scale well, and so when investors look at the company, they look at it from the logistics point of view to a certain extent.

We’ve innovated a ton on the logistics of this stuff. It’s crazy, and amazing to be able to ship stuff all over the world, we’re one of the only biotech companies that does that from the US, and we ship everything: human cells, DNA, organisms, like whatever, and we are willing to meet and overcome all those things but it’s hard to explain to investors.

Investors want something that they’re familiar with, and that’s like some app that can scale really well. We are the complete opposite of that.

But I think that what we’re doing it’s still groundbreaking, it’s just a matter of time before biohacking, biotech… blows up.

Build something beautiful

Is medicine still primitive?

SOFIA: I watched this documentary in which you mention that you were having problems with your gut microbiome health, but no doctor in an official health institution wanted to help you. On a side note, I’m also very interested in the gut microbiome science, and from my point of view, having a fecal transplant to modify your gut microbiome sounds somehow primitive. What do you think about this? Is there maybe a better way to do this?

JOSIAH: oh! it’s really primitive. But you have to understand that most medicine is primitive… chemotherapy is so fucking primitive. It stops your cells from replicating, just every cell in your body. You’re basically poisoning your whole body to try to kill these cancer cells. How primitive is that?

And when you think about this microbiome transplant, we have all these bacteria in our body. Some bacteria are good, some are bad. It depends on the proportions, but we don’t completely understand it. So you eat poop because that contains all the bacteria inside somebody’s gut, and it works, and that’s the only way we’ve found it works, so it is really primitive.

I think there’s a lot of medicine that we don’t understand and we can’t because it’s so complex. I think that’s okay, but we need to be more realistic with how much we understand, and try to do it and make it available. It’s interesting how many drugs of which we don’t actually the mechanism, we just know they work.

People’s reaction to a DIY corona vaccine

SOFIA: talking about taking more control over our health, I think this leads us into the coronavirus vaccine project.

JOSIAH: well, a scientific paper was published in Science magazine that showed that they could use a DNA vaccine on macaque monkeys and they could cause protection against SARS-CoV2. We thought that was really interesting and I wanted to test it out on myself. Create the DNA vaccine, have a company manufacture it, test and measure antibodies, and see if it could actually protect against the virus using viral neutralization assays… show the whole thing so that everybody could see what we’re doing, and they could learn how to do modern biomedical research. Unfortunately, YouTube deleted all the videos in the channel. They said it went against their terms of service, which is really sad.

SOFIA: were any people who messaged you, asking you to create a vaccine for them, or telling you that they’ve created their own vaccines thanks to your videos?

JOSIAH: I don’t know of anybody specifically who’s tried it, outside of me, David, and Daria (the biohacking CDC members), but we didn’t sell it. We only provided small amounts to people so that they could study it themselves. I really tried to minimize the media attention and exposure with this project because things can get really distorted really fast, and I didn’t want that. I wanted people to know more about this, if they wanted. So that when they did an internet search they would end up in our YouTube channel or our website and they would actually have to look at the data, what actually was there and what actually happened.

To me it’s just so unfathomable that a couple of people in their kitchen could create a coronavirus vaccine that could show viral neutralization in assays. I’m not saying that this could work for mass distribution, or that it would ever get FDA approved, but I took an antibody test like a month ago and it’s still showing antibodies, so I still can’t believe it.

That’s science though, right? A common theme is that if you take something that makes sense, and there’s no physical law preventing it from working, and you test it, there’s a chance that it’s going to work. That’s kind of what I do. You gotta be willing to do something that somebody else isn’t if you wanna push the boundaries. Whether that’s a self-experiment, or something risky, or operating outside the mainstream where people may think you’re crazy. But people don’t make big breakthroughs by doing stuff that everybody else is doing.

Usually why people don’t do that is because they’re scared of being criticized, hated… whatever. But people who then go and do that stuff, are super rare. And when you’re doing something that nobody else is willing to do, it changes things, it pushes things forward.

The biohacker’s mindset

Culturing chicken cells

SOFIA: I’ve lately been very inspired by this idea of growing anything. People working with digital tech say things like “it’s time to build” and we in biology can say “it’s time to grow”. So now I want to focus on your chicken cell culture project. The interesting thing about this is that you didn’t use CO2, and people had thought for years that it was necessary. What is your thought-process to do things differently, to innovate, and to disrupt?

JOSIAH: traditionally, scientists grow cells in an incubator, and they use CO2, which helps buffer the media. I think the important thing when you’re doing an experiment (or anything) is to learn it from first principles. Eventually, I’ll talk to an expert, but I’ll start by just messing stuff on my own and fail. Whatever it is: learning to play the violin, cooking or whatever. I like to do that because then I know what the limits are.

It also allows you to question and test everything: “why do people do things this way when this way seems a lot easier?”. Science is very dogmatic. People are doing things because other people did things, not because there’s a good reason. If you’re not doing something different than anybody else, you’re just gonna get the same results. I like to try to find that thing that’s different.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a balance. You can’t change everything. There are certain limits to all these things, but finding those things that you can do differently and change, that’s where the innovation lies.

I’ve tried culturing chicken cells in Petri dishes for years, and years, and years, and years. This was before there was much information or protocols. Then I started to figure out what failed, and what didn’t and eventually, I got a bunch of different protocols, and what I use for culture now is completely different from everything I’ve read, and it’s using methods that people thought weren’t possible. It’s taken a lot, and it’s probably not the best way.

There’s no other guides on the internet on how to isolate and grow chicken cells, much less doing it in your own home. I’m impressed by that. For me it’s such an achievement. It’s hard, it’s really hard. It’s way harder than just doing what everybody else says and does, but at the end, it’s so much more fulfilling, and the contribution you can make by curing it, and making the information available, all your successes and your failures.

Making biohacking mainstream

SOFIA: if you had the power to change anything in the political or legal aspect of biotechnology, what would that be?

JOSIAH: I’m not a very regulatory, savvy, government-control person. Walter Isaacson wrote a book called “The Code Breaker”, it’s about Jennifer Doudna, it’s about discovering CRISPR and her life, and stuff like that. I was talking to him because he wrote about me a little and he said “you’re like Puck. You’re always antagonizing people and showing people how things could be done differently and better, and pushing the boundaries so things change, but Puck isn’t the protagonist, he’s not the hero, or anything like that”. Maybe a more modern reference is Loki (Thor’s brother). He’s kind of the trouble-maker, but the trouble is sometimes for a reason and good does come of it.

That’s kind of how I see myself in the whole scheme of things, rather than somebody that’s gonna figure out how to regulate everybody. You know, I’m not gonna make a good decision. I’m a trouble-maker, so I’ll leave that up to other people.

What we need to invest more on

SOFIA: I read your article “CRISPR is dead”. There’s maybe too much hype around the technology. You know, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier winning the Nobel Prize in 2020 for discovering it… do you think that there’s a future for CRISPR?

JOSIAH: oh sure. People will use it until another technology comes along or something. But, let’s think about fundamental technologies, something like DNA sequencing, or DNA synthesis. The way we do DNA synthesis is so undoubtedly old and even Sanger sequencing. And these technologies stand the test of time, people use them, and they’re important.

I’m sure CRISPR will be used, but I don’t think it will necessarily stand the test of time, because it’s just a trick to do gene editing and obviously it’s not perfect. Eventually somebody is gonna discover a better and easier way to do gene editing, and we’ll all forget about CRISPR.

Not enough people are investing in fundamental technologies or making this information available. Maybe these companies like Ginkgo or other places can build these amazing fundamental technologies, they’re just not telling anybody about that.

There are so many areas in the realm of fundamental technologies that nobody’s working on because they’re not exciting. Nobody’s gonna write a story about how you made a new synthetic promoter that makes gene therapy 1000x more viable. You’re not gonna win a Nobel Prize for that, but it would affect fundamentally the course of gene therapy.

For any sort of technological revolution, it’s the fundamentals that have to be in place so that the technology is extremely useful to everybody.

Reverse-engineer DNA

SOFIA: I believe you did a project in Berkley to reverse-engineer people’s DNA from their picture? If I got the idea, then it’s totally mind-blowing.

JOSIAH: I try to take a concept that I think is futuristic, and implement it in some way in the real world so that it actually works. People have been recreating faces from a DNA sequence and I just thought if we could do the reverse: take somebody’s face and picture and try to recreate their DNA from that? That’s really weird, and scary, and crazy to think about.

Obviously we don’t know enough about DNA to make it 100% but there are things that you can figure out, especially in eye color, skin color, hair color… there are genes that we can map all of this stuff to. It’s interesting to dive into ideas that are a little more futuristic and we may not be able to completely implement them.

Ideas are bullshit

JOSIAH: I like to say that if nobody’s working on a time machine, then we’re not gonna have one. You gotta work on crazy ideas, you gotta work on crazy, interesting, and different things, even if you can’t quite complete it yet, because eventually, it will be.

SOFIA: I understand that it can be very challenging, but have you maybe tried to create a basic version of that?

JOSIAH: yeah, it was real. I built a device that takes a picture: you walk into a booth and then we use computer vision to get your eye color, hair color, skin color… use Machine Learning to tell if you are male or female, and use these characteristics to get different genetic traits about you.

So many people pitch me “I got this idea for this thing and if you make it, I’ll let you keep 50% of the profits” and I’m like “if I make it, I’m keeping 100% of the profits”.

Anybody can spend some time thinking and come up with some crazy ideas, it’s actually implementing it in some way that I think makes it real and significant. That’s way more difficult. It’s one of those things that people aren’t willing to do. If you have an idea, do it. Otherwise, it’s worthless.

The future of biotech

It’s definitely been an incredibly interesting conversation. I’ve learned a ton, not only about biotech, but also about biotech companies, and the mindsets of people who do things differently.

I still can’t believe that it was only a few years ago that I was just a bit curious about biotech, and found out about Josiah Zayner. He is and will continue to be an inspiration for me. I’ve had the pleasure to work with The Odin’s CRISPR and GFP kit. I’ve learned a lot from actually having hands-on these technologies, and DIYing biology.

All I can now say is that I love biohacking, and I can’t wait to not only see what others build but to contribute to building the future of biotech myself.

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