“A complete lack of formal scientific training has not kept Johan Sosa from dabbling with one of the most powerful molecular-biology tools to come along in decades.Sosa has already used CRISPR, a three-year-old technology that makes targeted modifications to DNA, in test-tube experiments. Next week, he hopes to try the method in yeast and, later, in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana.
Hailed for its simplicity and versatility, CRISPR allows scientists to make specific changes to a gene’s sequence more easily than ever before. Researchers have used CRISPR to edit genes in everything from bacteria to human embryos; the technique holds the potential to erase genetic defects from family pedigrees plagued by inherited disease, treat cancer in unprecedented ways or grow human organs in pigs. One researcher has even proposed modifying the elephant genome to produce a cold-adapted replica of the long-extinct woolly mammoth.
Such feats are beyond the reach of do-it-yourself (DIY) ‘biohackers’, a growing community of amateur biologists who often work in community laboratories, which typically charge a recurring fee for access to equipment and supplies. But CRISPR itself is not. Driven by an inventive spirit that inspires them to fiddle with yeast to alter the flavour of beer, build art installations out of bacteria or pursue serious basic-research questions, these amateurs cannot wait to try the technique.
“It’s, like, the most amazing tool ever,” says Andreas Stürmer, a biohacker and entrepreneur who lives in Dublin. “You could do it in your own home.”