If you ask Josiah Zayner, the genetic engineering revolution will not come in the form of designer babies or mutant super crops, but in the form of a bottle of glowing beer.
Mead brewed with a genetically engineered green fluorescent yeast that glows under a blacklight. Image: Josiah Zayner
Zayner is a biohacker. Once a synthetic biologist at NASA, a few years ago he quit his job to bring science to the masses. And now, Zayner would like to teach us all how to brew our own genetically modified, glowing beer.
"When the personal computer came out I imagine people purchased it because it was cool and maybe had a game they could play or a program they could use," Zayner told me. "Now living organisms are the computer and DNA is the code that writes reality. We want to give people the ability to reach into their imagination and bring things into existence using genetic design."
Zayner, 35, spends most of his day working to spread the good gospel of biohacking, and his company, The Odin, sells inexpensive DIY bio supplies, like kits to engineer yeast using the cutting-edge genetic engineering technique CRISPR. But Zayner dreams of a world where biohacking is as common a hobby as, say, pickling or making jam. And selling kits that allow people to engineer regular, yellow yeast to turn red, he wagered, was simply not sexy enough to spur a new generation of biohackers. Beer, on the other hand, might be the ticket. Homebrewing, after all, is a hobby beloved by plaid-clad, bearded men everywhere. What if, Zayner wondered, he sold a kit to teach people how to engineer brewing yeast to do something cool, like glow?
Last week, he debuted a kit that for $US199 ($266) allows science-minded homebrewers to do just that. The kit contains everything needed to insert a green fluorescent protein from a jellyfish into any kind of brewing yeast. Brew up some beer (or Zayner's preferred spirit, mead) using the engineered yeast, and voila, you have beer that glows under a blacklight.
Mead brewed with a genetically engineered yeast (left) and the green fluorescent yeast (right). Image: Josiah Zayner
"I asked myself what I imagined the future of genetic design would be like and it was a world in which I could go to a local tattoo shop and have them modify my genetics," Zayner told me. "After, I would invite my friends over and we would eat hamburgers with spicy tomato slices I engineered and grew in my garden, washing it all down with a beer that was made with yeast I designed to contain an aromatic taste never experienced before."
Also in the works: A plan to eventually sell kits for an "anti-cancer beer" using yeast engineered with a molecule called squalene, a substance found in shark livers that a small body of work has suggested may lower risks of cancer. (Not enough research has been done, though, to thoroughly vet the impact of squalene on human health.)
Zayner's hope is that the ability to produce something cool and tangible will get more people interested in not just learning about but actually doing genetic engineering.
"I figured that the genetic revolution would truly begin when consumers could create something tangible in their homes using genetic design," Zayner told me. "Yeast was something I knew we could start working with."
Biohacker Josiah Zayner in his Bay Area garage lab. Image: Josiah Zayner
Unfortunately for Zayner, the US Food and Drug Administration also caught wind of his vision for a beer-crazed army of biohackers, and is none-too-pleased. Since Zayner is selling pipettes, petri dishes, yeast and DNA, rather than actual beer, he believes he is clear of any FDA violations. The FDA has questioned whether the green fluorescent jellyfish protein Zayner is selling might be classified as a colour additive for food that hasn't yet been FDA approved.
Zayner maintains that a green fluorescent protein isn't exactly a colour, and plans to keep selling his kits until the FDA says he can't. His project is yet another example of how regulatory authorities and the science establishment are struggling to contend with a growing community of DIY scientists undertaking sophisticated experiments from the comfort of their garages. Many of these folks avoid oversight either on a technicality, or simply because regulators never imagined a homebrewer might splice jellyfish genes into brewing yeast. The debate over whether these kinds of experiments should be regulated, or to what degree, is heated.
As for Zayner's glowing beer, it's not quite the sci-fi sensation you might imagine. Under the blacklight, it only glows ever so slightly. But then again, that isn't really the point.