D.I.Y. bugs

October 2016
Photo Creative Commons
Ever since CRISPR [1] hopped onto the biotech platform, replacing bits of the living world to suit your individual tastes or whims has suddenly become possible [2]. And you don't have to be a scientist to do it.

Commercial interests have been quick to spot a market opportunity. CRISPR-mediated genetic transformation is technically easy to carry out, and custom-made DNA designed to make your organism of choice do what you want it to is easily available and inexpensive. Manufacturing CRISPR kits which can be used at home or in the most basic laboratory facility are already underway. At least one biotech salesman is on tour plugging them to the public. D.I.Y. CRISPR is 'exciting' and 'empowering', 'citizen science', which makes it sound like you should have a right to do it.

What CRISPR kits can be used for is the creation of GM forms of common microbes such as E.coli bacteria, and yeast to produce just about any substance. What could be created is limited only by the public imagination: Lemon-flavoured beer? Blue wine? Fluorescent blooms? Rose-scented cheese? Doggy-treats to silence that neighbour's irritating mutt?

While this might sound like a sophisticated version of that chemistry set Santa Claus brought down the chimney in your youth, bacteria and yeasts are potential pathogens with possibly deadly or irreversible results (for example, see below). They're also fast to evolve into new forms. Even in laboratories with stacks of expensive specialist equipment, highly trained personnel, and strict containment protocols, microbe escapes happen. D.I.Y. bugs will end up in sinks, toilets, garbage, hair, hands and clothing. Unexpected toxic outcomes in CRISPR-altered organisms are inevitable, and a genome destabilised by CRISPR processing will evolve in unexpected ways. The risks to people, animals and the environment are huge.

E.coli and E.coli 0157

E.coli is ubiquitous in animals, and a favourite target for genetic transformation.
You might start off with an innocuous E.coli strain and transform it to produce an innocuous substance, but what you end up culturing could have dropped in from anywhere, or could have picked up who-knows-what DNA from other microbes.

For example, as the sudden emergence of E.coli strain 0157 in 1983 and its periodic re-emergence ever since shows, killer versions of this microbe can pop up seemingly from nowhere.

E.coli 0157 sprang into the Scottish public awareness in 1996 when an outbreak triggered by poor hygiene practice in a butcher shop in Wishaw killed 17 people and made 503 people ill.
The latest E.coli 0157 outbreak on the outskirts of Glasgow, thought to be linked to cheese, has caused the tragic death of a child.

In the UK as a whole, there is a high incidence of E.coli 0157, matched only by Canada.
Scotland has more than double the incidence of E.coli 0157 compared to England.

E. coli of any kind really isn't a bug we want amateurs playing genetic engineer to be.


Effective regulation, control and inspection of laboratory facilities to prevent public harm from microbes has always been challenging. Even in the lab, the modern-day scope for malignant or accidental release of novel forms of life with unknown properties is unprecedented. Moving GM capability into the public domain may seem 'exciting' and 'empowering', but will end in catastrophe for somebody and on an unimaginable scale.

Demand a stop to D.I.Y. CRISPR before it has a chance to start.

[1] CRIPSR/Cas9 GENE EDITING - March 2016
[2] SYNBIO-BUGS - March 2016

  • Biohacking, Friends of the Earth Fact Sheet, 15.08.16
  • Seth Sandronsky, Biotech Worker's Illness Raises Worries About the Growing, Largely Unregulated, Industry,, 17.04.12
  • Biohacking: Amateur risk takers tinker with life, Gene Ethics 19.08.16
  • Andrew Pollack and Duff Wilson, Safety Rules Can't Keep Up With Biotech Industry, New York Times, 27.05.10
  • Mark Macaskill, National alert over E coli in cheese, Sunday Times, 11.09.16
  • Sophia Griffiths, Food and microbes: learning from the past, Food Science and Technology Journal, 2.06.14

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