Dr. Josiah Zayner

"And if our cells are our destiny / I want to be free of biology"

   David Byrne,"Crash", 1994. 

The nature versus nurture debate may never be resolved, but for those firmly rooted in the belief that DNA is the primary influencer of who we are and what we become, the code dictating our strengths and weaknesses and setting the rules for our possible versus impossible - genetic sequencing combined with the recent discoveries in bioengineering and gene-editing tools like CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) offers a loophole. The prospect of not only access to our genetic story, but also the potential for alteration...and no longer accepting the fixed "facts" of our individual destinies.

Though far from perfect, CRISPR, the DNA-enzyme "molecular scissors" duo, has been hailed by scientists as a simple, but powerful tool with revolutionary potential in a broad range of applications, including, and most obviously, human disease. But how simple could it be to specifically target and modify our genes? Simple only for scientists with traditional lab resources, right?

 

Dr. Josiah Zayner doesn't see it that way. He's part of a growing community of scientists from diverse disciplines who see value in democratizing the study and practice of science. In 2016, he founded The ODIN, a company dedicated to making DIY biological engineering and genetic design accessible and available to all. Browse the company's product list and you'll find everything from CRISPR kits that help users create fluorescent yeast to a Biohacker 101 Program including lectures from world-renowned scientists, Kate Adamala and George Church, to green tree frog CRISPR kits designed to engineer bigger, meatier frogs through increased growth hormone production, frogs and frog food (crickets available for a nominal surcharge) included. 

Here, Dr. Zayner tells us about his anything but traditional path to becoming a biotech CEO, how computers and hacker culture influenced his early career aspirations, and how DIY science can be the great equalizer. 

The following interview took place on February 1 and February 5, 2019. 

 

INTERVIEWER

Where’d you grow up?

 

ZAYNER

On a farm in Valparaiso, Indiana.

We had an animal farm with goats and chickens and stuff like that. 

 

INTERVIEWER

You have any siblings?

 

ZAYNER

Yeah, three brothers. The funny thing is, two of my brothers, they both had three kids, all boys.

 

INTERVIEWER

Are they still in Indiana?

 

ZAYNER

No, two of my brothers moved out here to California, and one's a missionary in Mexico. 

 

INTERVIEWER

And the two in California, do you work with them? Or rather, do they work for you?

 

ZAYNER

No, one of my brothers did work for me, but he moved on to better things (laughing). It's not good to work with family. They treat you like you're their brother and not like their boss.

 

INTERVIEWER

Can see where that'd be a problem. So growing up in Indiana, who and what inspired you as a young scientist?

 

ZAYNER

I didn't really have any science aspirations, I guess. I was always just really curious. I grew up in the late '90s, so computer hacker culture was thriving. I watched Hackers and was like, "oh, I wanna do that!" So I spent a lot of time learning computer programming, got a job at Motorola when I was 19. I don't know - I've always been a loner/rebel type. Even with my company, I just decided to do it.

 

INTERVIEWER

We'll get to The ODIN later, but speaking of your business,

your lone business advisor, at least as listed on your

website, is George Church (Professor of Genetics at

Harvard Medical School and MIT, co-author of over 500

papers, published first direct genomic sequencing method

with Walter Gilbert in 1984). How'd that come about?

ZAYNER

I met George in 2013, I think. We were at this conference, and he's really tall, very distinct look to him. He's a funny guy. It's a really small conference, and he walks into the room, and starts complaining that there isn't any vegan food. I'm like, who is this guy? Anyway, I started the ODIN shortly after, and in 2016, he sent me an email saying, "I like what you're doing. Can we connect? How can I help you out?" So I asked if he'd join my Advisory Board and maybe send some plasmids and stuff. He's been great, really supportive, always willing to give advice, chat about stuff. He tells people that he keeps me out of trouble. 

 

INTERVIEWER

Everyone needs one of those. I'd heard of you before, but I got your name from Dr. Kate Adamala. In talking to her, I get the sense that the synthetic biology community is a tight-knit one.

 

ZAYNER

It is. It's pretty small. You have to remember that science in general is pretty small. Big conferences, like the American Society of Microbiology, bring in ten or twenty thousand people, but in general, scientific fields are really small. People think there are a lot of scientists out there doing all kinds of stuff, working on every angle of every disease, but there's really not. So you get to know people pretty fast.

 

INTERVIEWER

I asked her this question I'm about to ask you, and she had some difficulty answering it because she's already worked with or is working with many of her heroes. If you could collaborate with one living scientist, who would it be and why?

 

ZAYNER

Oh man. There are a bunch of people I've tried to collaborate with who won't give me the time of day. One person is George Hotz. We have super similar backgrounds. He's the guy who jailbroke the first iPhone. Right now, he's trying to start a DIY self-driving car company called comma.ai. He's a few years younger than me. I've had people try to put me in contact with him. I mean, he's trying to create a DIY self-driving car and sell the kit to people, which sounds insane to me, but I'm sure people think the exact same thing about the stuff I do.  

 

INTERVIEWER

In a Popular Science article from May ’16, it’s mentioned that part of your motive for The ODIN was that you felt frustrated hearing about cool, advanced technologies like invisible cloaks or quantum computers, the types of magic science popularized in movies, that seem hopelessly out of reach for most. 

I think that’s part of the problem science faces in attracting a new generation of

recruits. So much of what is read now in the media is in headlines or short quips with not exactly airtight metaphors/analogies like, the brain is a computer, that are shared three million times in 30 seconds, and provide some nice fodder for water cooler conversation, but might cause problems for careers in science advocates/recruiters in the long run because people aren’t going to see the practical, commercial applications of the science they read about for a very long time. Do you think CRISPR is the “prototype” technology that generates and sustains this excitement or merely the beginning? 

ZAYNER

The beginning. CRISPR's really just a means to an end. Like when computers first came out and all they had on them was solitaire. I don't think CRISPR is going to solve all the world's problems or anything like that. However, right now, CRISPR and genetic engineering are one and the same, so as a retail business owner, leveraging that is obvious. 

 

INTERVIEWER

Considering your proximity to Silicon Valley, being an entrepreneur, are you involved in the "betterment" movement? Any experimentation with nootropics? Do you have a vitamin regimen?

 

ZAYNER

Soy latte in the morning, then some salted cashews and a Red Bull, hamburger for lunch, twinkie for a snack (laughing). 

No. And the majority of people out here aren't necessarily like that. But the

majority of people out here are trying different things. I think that's kind of what sets San Francisco apart. Everybody is trying to do something new or different or creative or interesting. A lot of it's stupid and silly because you can imagine if you have a couple million people all trying to do something different, like 99% of it's going to be silly.

 

INTERVIEWER

I want to talk a little about your graduate school experience. What led you to the University of Chicago and specifically, your PhD lab?

 

ZAYNER

I was a Chicago boy, so obviously growing up, hearing about the University of Chicago, it's one of the best schools in the world. When I was accepted, it was like, shit, I can't turn this down.

For my motives, I'm a big reductionist. I like to reduce things down to first

principle. This led me to my mentor, Tobin Sosnick, who is the ultimate first principle guy. One of the most brilliant people I know. Taught me so much about learning, about how to think, and invest in yourself. When you invest in knowledge like that, a PhD program, it's for you. But its application in the real world is nothing. My thesis work was on the thermodynamics of these proteins that no one really cares about. I could kid myself and say that, maybe in 50 years someone cites this and it becomes important, but no - that's not going to happen. 

 

INTERVIEWER

So after your PhD, you go to NASA for a fellowship in the synthetic biology program to develop gene-edited bacteria for use in the colonization of Mars.

 

ZAYNER

Yep, so I was working on a couple different things. One was taking these light-controlled systems (TULIPs: tunable, light-controlled interacting protein tags for cell biology) I worked on during my PhD and engineering them in the bacteria to create a photolithography, so basically being able to 3-D print things with microorganisms.

The idea was, you go to Mars, take some soil, mix the soil with these bacteria and

when you shine light on the bacteria, they secrete proteins that then harden up Martian soil.

The other thing was degradation of plastics. Engineering microorganisms that can

secrete enzymes that would help break down plastics. Astronauts use so much plastic, and you can imagine that, if you fly up to Mars to stay, the only thing you can do with plastic is throw it away unless you discover a way to recycle it, but you can't bring the same machines we have here to melt it down. So the idea was if you could break plastic down into its constituent parts, because plastic is basically just carbon, you could resolve the waste issue and use the carbon elsewhere.

 

INTERVIEWER

That sounds like really stimulating work.

 

ZAYNER

Yeah, but the application was not reasonable. NASA likes to think very far in the future, so far in the future that a lot of the stuff doesn't become reality. No one's ever used synthetic biology in space period, and we're trying to develop these tools? It's like 40, 50 years out. Those are hard projects to work on because they might not even be realized in your lifetime. That's what the culture of NASA has turned into. A bunch of people writing these crazy grants that are just way out there.

I want to work on something I can realize now. 

 

INTERVIEWER

Did you have specific career aspirations in mind entering grad school?

 

ZAYNER

I mean, the majority of people go into grad school aspiring to that tenured professorship, right? Nowadays, the majority of people are jaded by the time they graduate because you see how fucked up academia is. That's why I went to NASA. Then I realized NASA also wouldn't work for me, I needed something else. So I applied to a bunch of jobs at a bunch of different places, but no one really wanted to hire me. At that point, the writing was on the wall for me.

 

INTERVIEWER

Before you left NASA, did you discuss next steps with colleagues? What sort of response did they have?

ZAYNER

Yeah, well I was running this company while still at NASA, but more as a nights and weekends thing. I asked a few people at NASA to get involved with me, but that didn't happen. Since starting this company, I've asked a lot of people to join me, but no one has. Now that it's starting to do better, a few have changed their tune. It's kind of rare to have a single founder company, but it's not on purpose. It's just that no one would do it with me. And I understand. It's harder to see a vision that's not yours. Generally, I don't try too hard to persuade people. I'm getting better at it, but before I was like, yeah, I'm doing this thing, maybe it'll work out, maybe it won't (laughing). I've started to at least sequester that last thought before vocalizing it.

But I've realized, the process has been more about working through trial and

error than actually getting advice from people because no one's been in that situation. In this case, advice is more like a sounding board instead of someone being able to really tell me anything. It's important to venture into the unknown, to take risks. I think that's where a lot of change and good things come from.

If someone were to ask for my secrets of success, I'd say, #1 is be lucky, like

super lucky. And #2, be naive. If I would've gone into this knowing what's required, I would've agreed with everyone who told me this was a bad business decision. Which was everyone.

 

INTERVIEWER

You and your work have received a lot of press coverage. What's your overall impression of science journalism in America? 

 

ZAYNER

I think it's terrible, but that's more journalism in general. It's flawed. They want to tell a story and they're going to tell it regardless of what you say to them. So you have to give them these sound bites and quotes that, in the context of the story, help express what you want to express. That means you might have to say something different. Something provocative.

I was featured in a New York Times article, and the writer called every other PhD

mentioned in the article, Dr., except me. A bunch of people came to my defense. I emailed them. Of course they didn't change it. Prior to it being published, they called to fact check the article with me. But something like that is more subtle. There's a lot of room for manipulation. 

This whole science communication thing, I get it. People translating technical

science for the public, I get it. But science shouldn't need an interpreter. It shouldn't need people who are the go-between, between these priests of science and you dumb people in the public. That's my company. I think, look, we can all be part of this science thing. It doesn't have to be them, the scientists, and us, the non-scientists. If you look at the start of computers, for example, there was a lot of education going on. The ads were like, "This is a microchip! A microchip is a silicon device that..." They educated people about this technology constantly, but it wasn't called technology communications. I want genetic engineering to be more like that. 

 

INTERVIEWER

It's interesting you bring up the "us vs. them" in this context because that's inherent in every single societal issue that exists today. The good, smart - bad, dumb dichotomy.

 

ZAYNER

Right. That's the big theme. In the US, we've got stupid people doing things the wrong way, and then we have the smart people, who feel the need to tell them how their lives should be lived. People aren't the way they are because they're stupid. What happened in their lives, socioeconomically, what they were born into, a lot of different things factor into intelligence. 

There's a guy I work with right now, we're working on some really cool dog

breeding genetic projects, he works in the oil fields in Mississippi, has a GED, didn't graduate high school. Over the last few years, I've helped mentor him and teach him the basic methods, sent him supplies and everything, and it's been incredible. Most people would think, based on profile, that he's a dumb hillbilly or something like that, probably a Trump supporter. It's not like that. This guy can do graduate level genetic engineering experiments and interpretation without a problem. He just needed a chance.

INTERVIEWER

What's your take on the CRISPR baby announcement? (For reference to what I'm talking about, check out this MIT Tech Review article.) Specifically, what's your impression of the response from the scientific community?

ZAYNER

Yeah, that's an interesting question. It's weird. If you look at science in general, and how much fucked up shit has been done in the name of science, the history of hurting and harming people is right alongside the history of helping. In this case, the scientist is a Chinese national, which I think plays a role. There's definitely some anti-Chinese sentiment in the US at the moment. Almost all of the article headlines include, Chinese scientist. I'm not sure that if it was done by someone in Italy or the UK would experience the same, their nationality wouldn't be the one descriptor beside profession.

And then, the language of the reporting and what's happening now plays right

into our fears. This guy "disappeared" when he didn't actually disappear, but it makes us think he was kidnapped and thrown in jail or something. Then there was the implication that he was going to get the death penalty. At the same time, there's a documentary crew that I've worked with before, guys I know, and they've interacted with Dr. He and he maintains that everything's fine. 

As human beings, we're so easy to manipulate and it's because we have such

biased views. But the scientist outcry, and the response from American scientists, in particular, I just....I don't see the logic behind it. It's one of the biggest, craziest things in science to happen in our lifetime, and we're all sitting here, angry, talking about ethics. It was going to happen. It's going to keep happening. It's bigger than landing on the moon. Human beings have now changed. 

INTERVIEWER

Let's change course. Tell me about your greatest eBay lab equipment find of all time.

 

ZAYNER

(Laughing) Oh man, what have I found? I'll group them. DNA synthesizers and DNA sequencers, those things you can get super cheap. I'm talking like one to two thousand dollars, fully functional, complete systems. With most of it, people don't know what they're selling, and in that case, a sequencer is of no use to them. 

INTERVIEWER

That's a career in and of itself! Those refurbishing skills, did you have them before you started The ODIN or has it been more learned on the job?

ZAYNER

Mostly ODIN, actually. I know which companies make good product versus shit, the ones that break all the time, so I can pretty accurately assess whether something's worth the cost or not.

INTERVIEWER

Alright, last question: Led Zeppelin, Beatles, Rolling Stones, or Pink Floyd?

ZAYNER

Yeesh. That's a hard one to answer because it's like what do I want to be? How do I want to be perceived?

INTERVIEWER

That's my intent! People think it's a music preference question. It's not. I mean, it is, but it's more than that.

ZAYNER

I guess I see myself as an old soul, mellow. My partner, she always calls me an old man. I'll have a cup of chamomile tea before bed and watch old British crime TV shows where like nothing happens. It's so boring, it puts you to sleep. So yeah, I like to think of myself in that older generation, the lighthearted one that didn't take itself so seriously. So I'm going with the Beatles.

INTERVIEWER

Pre-White Album Beatles. Got it.

ZAYNER

That's me.

Learn more about Dr. Zayner by visiting his personal site, Science, Art, Beauty, where you can find his thoughts on a host of issues as well as links to plenty of feature articles. Next month, Dr. Zayner will be joining George Church, Antonio Regalado of MIT Technology Review and Jane Metcalfe of Neo.Life on the Main Stage for a discussion, titled "Code of the Wild - Are we Entering a Genomic Revolution?" at the Hello Tomorrow Global Summit in Paris, France. Check out his Twitter, @4LOVofScience, for the latest updates.

Feel free to leave your thoughts on the interview in the comments section.

Source: bestplaces.net

Source: wikipedia.org

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Source: Nature Methods, 2012. Volume 9, No. 4. 379-384.

©2019 by EG Lund.