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Biotechnology and health

The DIY designer baby project funded with Bitcoin

Cryptocurrency, biohacking, and the fantastic plan for transgenic humans.
February 1, 2019
Conceptual illustration of designer baby
Conceptual illustration of designer babyKelsey Niziolek

At his keyboard in Austin, Texas, Bryan Bishop was writing quickly. A nationally ranked speed typist, he had drafted a polite inquiry to a prominent futurist in the UK. He wanted advice on his “designer baby startup.”

For a few years now, Bishop, a 29-year-old programmer and Bitcoin investor, has been leaving a trail of comments about human “enhancement” on the web. He’s a transhumanist, which means he thinks humans can be improved in profound ways by technology. He’d long exhorted others to do something about the human condition.

Now, he had decided to do it himself.

According to the e-mail, sent in May, Bishop and his partner in the enterprise, Max Berry, a former biotech company lab scientist, were “starting a company focused on the production of designer babies and human germline genetic engineering.” He noted that “lab work has started” and “we have an initial parent-couple customer.”

He said he wanted ethics advice to help win the endorsement of a prominent geneticist, George Church of Harvard University, whose tally of potential genetic enhancements—a scroll of genes with names like PCSK9 and CCR5, presented in dozens of talks—has been called the “wish list” for a post-human era.

Bishop’s hope is to make these possibilities real. A copy of his business proposal says his venture plans to let parents have transgenic children who can “grow muscle without weightlifting,” who possess genes from long-lived “supercentenarians,” or who are endowed with the AB+ blood type, meaning they could receive a transfusion from anyone.

Bryan Bishop (left) and Max Berry
Designer baby enthusiasts Bryan Bishop (left) and Max Berry at the Genome Project-Write conference.
MIT Technology Review

In November, a Chinese biophysicist claimed he’d made the first gene-edited babies—news that sparked a global outcry and could lead to stiff penalties in China for the scientist responsible. Since He Jiankui’s undertaking was first revealed by MIT Technology Review, science leaders have raced to stop the next “rogue” researcher. Some want a strict moratorium on gene-modified babies. Others say what’s needed are detailed technical criteria and medical guidelines, so IVF embryos can be modified safely and for purposes the medical community agrees on. Gene-editing experts from China, the US, and the UK are planning yet another blue-ribbon committee to bring it all under control.

While new guidelines and public scolding may keep professional scientists with government grants in check, they don’t help with people like Bishop, a “relatively well-known ‘Do-It-Yourself biohacker’” (according to his résumé) who has spent thousands of dollars on furthering his own vision for adding genetic superpowers to newborns.

Several weeks ago, a concerned individual sent me a copy of fund-raising slides outlining Bishop’s business proposal, which contains projections of billions in revenue from creating hundreds of thousands of enhanced babies. This person, who asked to remain anonymous, was unsure whether it was “bullshit” or “horrifyingly plausible.” The individual expressed concern that transhumanists were going to try to put their ideas for improving the species into action, and felt it was time to blow the whistle on Bishop.

According to Bishop’s slides, designer humans wouldn’t be created as they were in China, by injecting gene-editing molecules into an egg at the moment of fertilization. Instead, in a hack that will make your eyes cross, the proposal envisions performing gene therapy on the testicles of a male volunteer. That way, sperm carrying DNA enhancements could be used to get a woman pregnant. According to the plan, Bishop and Berry think that with $2 million, they can move quickly from animal tests to a first volunteer. “Outcome: First human with transgenic sperm, and we begin taking pre-orders,” says the funding slide.

“I think this is a significantly flawed and deeply worrying approach to genetically modifying humans,” says Güneş Taylor, a postdoctoral fellow at the Francis Crick Institute in London, who also received a copy of the proposal. “It is also extremely worrying that they claim to have their first participant.”

Others said the pitch deck borders on the absurd. The two entrepreneurs, for instance, say their technology’s addressable market is “the entire future of humanity” and offer a blueprint for a gene-therapy virus containing what would be an unwieldy payload of genetic instructions. “My general reaction is wondering whether to even take it seriously,” says Samuel Sternberg, an assistant professor at Columbia University. He questions whether Bishop’s real aim is “being maximally provocative and getting in the spotlight.”

Other people familiar with Bishop’s plans also think it’s mostly talk so far, but perhaps not entirely. “This is far less advanced than Jiankui He, who had a considerable amount of wealth and know-how that was relevant,” says Church, the Harvard genetic engineer, who says he’s spoken with Bishop. Church allows that the sperm approach “is technically feasible,” although he says that “it will require significant debugging.” 

“It definitely could happen—that is why we need to talk about it,” Church told me. The geneticist, who holds an advisory position with a large number of companies and genetic ventures, says he has not agreed to such a role in Bishop’s case. Instead, he told Bishop that he should seek ethics advice and FDA approval, and carry out proper clinical trials if he proceeds. “I give advice to just about anybody, especially if I think they need it,” Church said.

Bitcoin guy

Bishop and Berry, during a phone interview, declined to name the potential customer, or to say whether one of them was planning to volunteer. Bishop, who is barrel-shaped and well over six feet tall, did say one enhancement he’d like to see would be a gene to control weight. The men said they had only begun preliminary research on animals and were not close to trying to make a baby. Bishop said that could take a few years. “We haven’t started on humans yet, but we do believe this is ethical,” he says. “People are on a witch hunt right now to find wrongdoing. I am afraid they are not going to find any.”

Bishop is already well known in the cryptocurrency arena: he worked until recently at LedgerX, a Bitcoin exchange, and once added a few lines of code to the underlying software that maintains the digital currency. His most visible public roles, though, have been as a facilitator—moderating discussion forums, appearing at conferences, and posting transcripts, which he types himself. Two days after a phone interview with him, a transcript of everything I had said appeared in my in-box. Noah Horn, an administrator with Type Racer, an online typing competition, says Bishop “is in the top percentile of all English-language typists in the world,” with a speed of 173.66 words per minute.

“I describe him as the closest thing to an AI in human form,” says Andrew Hessel, CEO of Humane Genomics, a startup gene-therapy company, who says he’s known Bishop for several years. “He’s a ghost in the machine.”

I first met Bishop last May at a scientific conference called Genome Project–Write, hosted by Church at Harvard’s medical campus. The meeting attracts people interested in futuristic applications of genetic engineering. Bishop told me then he was working on a designer baby project, but it was his role in Bitcoin—worth $9,072 a coin at the time—that caught my attention. Could the kid in the safari shirt be filthy rich? There would certainly be a delicious logic in a CRISPR baby paid for with Bitcoin. I snapped a photo and said we should keep in touch.

There was no reason at the time to take Bishop too seriously. But that changed after the news from China. Hardly anyone had been expecting the first CRISPR babies to be born so soon. Now it’s clear that the chance to improve the human genome has an irresistible allure. The Chinese researcher, He, had ignored advice from some colleagues who warned him not to proceed. At the same time, though, there were signals of tacit approval. Over the summer, a leading ethics council in the United Kingdom broke with prior opinion, releasing a report saying there is nothing inherently wrong with trying to "influence" children’s abilities, bodies, or looks by modifying their DNA.

Some DIY biology enthusiasts also don’t think governments should have much say in what happens to people’s genomes, and a few have already self-administered untested gene therapies. These experiments have been, for the most part, trouser-dropping spectacles aimed at hogging attention. One entrepreneur who jabbed a syringe full of DNA into his thigh was later found dead in a sensory deprivation tank—a death ruled accidental. Another, Josiah Zayner, injected himself with what he said were gene-editing ingredients during a San Francisco conference in 2017.

In short, in the biohacker community, the idea that someone might try to modify his own sperm-making cells wouldn’t be far-fetched. “If Bryan said he had any intention of modifying another human, I would say ‘No, you are crazy,’” says Hessel. "If he wanted to do it to himself, I would say, well …”

Mississippi sperm

I never determined if Bishop is sitting on a Bitcoin fortune. He did claim to have “made and lost millions of dollars” on the volatile digital currency but says he was skeptical early on when the coins cost less, perhaps missing the chance for a true digital windfall. Still, he is a highly paid programmer who can command $600 an hour or more, according to his agent, Michael Solomon of 10X Management in New York, a firm that represents freelance software coders.

That means Bishop has more money than other DIY biologists and is able to direct their efforts, sometimes buying equipment for them or assigning them jobs. “A lot of biohackers come from pretty modest backgrounds,” says Zayner, who operates a supply company called The Odin that sells CRISPR kits to enthusiasts for $159. “He’s paid other biohackers to do stuff for him.”

One person Bishop recently provided resources to is David Ishee, a ponytailed Mississippi oil worker and dog breeder who has made the news for trying to genetically engineer dogs. Working out of a shed turned laboratory, Ishee has been mixing jellyfish DNA with mastiff sperm, hoping to create glowing puppies. He hasn’t succeeded yet, despite inseminating at least six dogs with the modified sperm.

Ishee told me that after meeting with Bishop and Berry he also tried adding DNA constructs to a sample of his own sperm. It was Bishop who sent money via PayPal for the necessary reagents. “He got me some fluorescent DNA staining kits,” Ishee says. “Those are a couple of hundred dollars. For me, that is expensive. It was just like, ‘If you get something, let me know.’ I obviously never tried to impregnate anyone with it, ha ha.”

On the basis of his experience with dogs, Ishee says there is zero chance that a DIY biologist can make a designer baby working weekends. “Is DIY bio anywhere close to making a CRISPR baby? No, not remotely,” he says. “But if some rich guy pays a scientist to do the work, it’s going to happen.”

He adds: "What you are reporting on isn’t Bryan—it’s the unseen middle space, a layer of gray-market biotech and freelance science where people with resources can get things done.” I asked him if he thought Bishop and Berry could really pull it off. “I have no idea,” he said. “Obviously, not just Max and Bryan—there has got to be a woman involved. I am assuming they have got that planned out. Because ‘Can you have my mutant baby?’ is a weird thing to start a conversation with.”

A lab in Ukraine

In January, I joined Bishop and Berry for a virtual tour of a Ukrainian lab they are paying to conduct exploratory experiments on mice. It is part of the Institute of Gerontology at Ukraine’s Academy of Medical Sciences in Kiev. The chiseled face of our guide, Dmytro Krasnienkov, appeared via Skype in front of a potted plant and a sign reading “DO MORE OF WHAT MAKES YOU HAPPY.”

Bishop arranged the tour after I asked him to demonstrate whether there was scientific substance to his project. Krasnienkov, dressed in a white coat, carried his laptop through rooms containing lasers, micromanipulators, and areas for growing cells. He later said in an e-mail that the space is shared by the institute and a private company, Geron, which studies telomerase, a biomarker of aging (not to be confused with the US company of the same name).

“This is the sleep box, the place we can sleep during experiments,” said Krasnienkov, swinging the webcam around.

Photo of researcher in lab
A researcher at the Gerontology Institute in Kiev, Ukraine, where an American biohacker has paying for research using Bitcoin.
Gerontology Institute

“The Wi-Fi coverage in your lab is quite good,” observed Bishop. He had an interest in the tour too, since he hasn’t yet traveled to Ukraine. Instead, he has been paying for the experiments by transmitting bitcoins to the Europeans.

“Here is where we do the surgeries,” the Ukrainian went on, moving on and stopping before a boxed-in platform with a microscope over it.

Bishop had previously forwarded me a photo of a flayed-open mouse lying on the microscope stage, as well as a close-up of trace dyes being injected into its testicles. Krasnienkov said that so far experiments had been carried out on about 30 mice. In a few cases, the researchers have had limited success incorporating genetic material into the animals’ testes. That can be done by injecting invisible strands of DNA and then applying an electric shock, so the sperm-making cells take up the genetic cargo. As yet, no transgenic mouse pups have resulted.

During our Skype call, Krasnienkov said he wasn’t ready to see humans modified via sperm yet—not until there’s much more research done. “I don’t want anyone to do this in a hurry; I don’t want to do something too fast,” he said. He added that Ukraine is a poor country. The average wage is only about $350 a month. “There is not much financial support from the government—even before the war it was not good,” he said, referring to the conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the East. That’s one reason state facilities take on projects from abroad, but Krasnienkov added, “We have accepted this project because we are interested in it.”

Unanswered e-mails

Since I began speaking with Bishop by phone in December, he and Berry have started to doubt the sperm-altering approach. Berry, who has an undergraduate degree in biology, thinks instead they should adapt a technique, called “Velocimouse,” invented by a New York biotech company as a speedy way to engineer mice with custom DNA. The method would involve handling a human IVF embryo, first removing its stem cells and then, after performing genetic engineering steps on those, injecting them into a second embryo. It would be a radical way to make a human baby. 

It’s possible to dismiss Bishop and Berry’s effort as likely to get nowhere. But it will also be hard to restrain people interested in creating designer babies. “Would the FDA start kicking down doors if we were providing parents with this technology in a private setting, with the parents’ consent?” Berry wrote in an e-mail. “I do expect there will be legal battles, which I hope we will be funded and supported on.” Currently, making a genetically modified baby would be illegal in the US, but in other countries, like Ukraine, the rules aren’t as strict. Bishop is skeptical of the role regulations can play—a lesson he says he learned working with Bitcoin, a digital currency outside the control of any central bank.

By and large, the scientific community has blasted the China experiments, but biohackers such as Bishop and Zayner think China’s He is being treated too roughly for attempting the obvious next step in the human story. During the international summit in Hong Kong in November where He was called to explain himself, Bishop was one of more than 1 million people watching online, part of perhaps the largest audience ever for a scientific address.

Bishop quickly transcribed the scientist’s remarks, which he keeps pinned on his Twitter profile. “If this is a slippery slope, then I want a slip n’ slide,” he tweeted.

After the China debacle, some figures who have strongly advocated for human enhancement are now issuing cautious notes, including on the prospect of biohacker babies. “I am sympathetic to the transhumanist movement, but if this is occurring, I think it’s a case of trying to run before you can walk,” says Julian Savulescu, a philosopher at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute who’s known for arguing that parents should use genetic engineering to have the “best” children they can, such as those who are smarter or more moral.

Micrograph of injection into mouse testes
Dyes and genetic material being injected into a mouse's testes at a Ukrainian laboratory.
Gerontology Institute, Kiev

Bishop told me none of the ethicists he e-mailed had ever gotten back to him. I contacted Anders Sandberg, the futurist Bishop asked for advice last May, and who is also based at Oxford University. “I should have replied,” says Sandberg, who is influential in the transhumanist movement and publishes on topics such as the morality of self-driving cars and the prospect of cryonically preserving fetuses as an alternative to abortion.

“I am outspoken saying enhancement could be a good thing, and it’s a valid medical goal,” says Sandberg, but he thinks that computer programmers like Bishop are afflicted by a peculiar form of hubris: “Everything looks like code. It’s just letters—how hard can it be? But most biologists know that those poor guys—they are going to discover it is not so easy.” 

Bryan doesn’t strike me as that crazy—he seems like a reasonable person,” Sandberg went on. “If he has a company offering something, he needs to show he can provide it, and that is going to be tricky. If I were to use this technology on my child, well, it needs to be really well documented; I don’t want to be the father of a guinea pig. It’s going to be tough to prove it works. I do hope we can get the right kinds of designer babies, but pushing it too soon, too early, is going to lead to backlash, which is too bad. We are not quite up for this.”

I ended up wondering what Bishop’s underlying motivations were. While he spoke to me freely about his ideas, he clammed up when I asked him about his family background. I never learned why, deep down, he had become obsessed with human enhancement, with climbing the double helix. Bishop felt these questions were “getting too personal.” His motivations, he said, were complicated.

He e-mailed me back: “Can you say I was bitten by a radioactive science fiction writer?”

—with reporting by Morgen Peck


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