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“Don’t be too impressed,” said Josiah Zayner as he cracked open
the fridge. On the top shelf, next to Silk soy milk cartons,
was the Bay Area biohacker’s latest creation: a bottle of
With the kitchen lights turned off, Zayner pointed a blacklight
at the alcohol. And a faint green glow sparkled at the bottom
of the bottle.
The drink tasted fizzy, faintly intoxicating, and sweet, thanks
to the fermented honey that gives mead its alcoholic kick. “I
don’t know if you feel like a Viking when you drink mead. I
kind of do. Arrrr!” he said, adding, “You can taste the honey,
you can taste the alcohol a little bit.”
Zayner, 35, had made the glowing booze partly with a
do-it-yourself DNA kit that his startup, the Odin, has just
started selling online. The company conceived it as a gimmick
to introduce homebrewers to genetic engineering. But in the
short time the kit’s been for sale, it’s also become a test for
the citizen scientists to see how far they can push the FDA.
With the kit, customers can genetically engineer yeast to make
mead that gleams like a lantern — the ideal refreshment for,
presumably, poorly lit house parties. “Imagine a world in which
after work you invite your friends over to have them try a
custom beer you brewed that glows in the dark using your own
genetically designed yeast,” the Odin’s website read early last
The FDA also began to imagine this world after the kit
started selling last week, unknownst to the agency — and
then it started asking whether fluorescent homebrew was safe.
By initially marketing the kit as a food-making device, the
startup may have exposed a loophole in laws that haven’t caught
up to a generation of biohackers tinkering with the DNA of
bacteria, plants, and animals in their kitchens and garages.
“The system wasn’t set up to deal with things like this,” said
Todd Kuiken, a senior research scholar at North Carolina State
University’s Genetic Engineering and Society Center.
While humans have for centuries used yeast to make wine and
beer, and homebrewing has been legal federally since 1978 and
in all 50 states since 2013, the Odin’s light-up twist could
give regulators a hangover-sized headache.
“I can’t imagine when they wrote the laws for this, [they
said,] ‘Well, at some point, somebody’s going to be able to
engineer yeast for beer that will make it glow in the dark,’”
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Scientific research is traditionally conducted by scholars with
multiple degrees and access to expensive equipment at
universities and industry labs. But like its DIY bio brethren,
the Odin, short for the Open Discovery Institute, wants to make
those tools cheap and easy, so everyone can be scientists. Its
five employees, who work out of a garage in a suburb across the
bay from San Francisco, are used to operating on the fringe of
the scientific establishment.
Zayner, the CEO and founder, is a former NASA research fellow
with a biophysics and biochemistry PhD from the University of
Chicago. Pushing the legal and physical limits of scientific
experimentation is second nature for him: Earlier this year, he
performed an unsanctioned
fecal transplant on himself, using poop from a friend, to
relieve gastrointestinal pain. In late 2015, he
crowdfunded kits to alter bacteria with the gene-editing
technology CRISPR; the Odin, a business he started in grad
Zayner and his team dreamed up the newest kit as a way to make
genetic engineering accessible and useful. Homebrewing, whose
popularity has been skyrocketing, seemed like an activity that
people would enjoy doing — more so than editing bacteria DNA —
and maybe they’d pick up some biology in the process.
“There’s never been anything like this before, where somebody
has a kit where they can engineer something they can do
something with,” Zayner told BuzzFeed News. “Someone can
genetically engineer something they can consume.”
When Zayner set out to advertise the kit, he believed he was in
the clear due to what he saw as a legal distinction: the FDA
regulates food products, including some alcohol — but the Odin
wasn’t selling a beverage.
It’s selling equipment like a pipette and petri dishes, along
with yeast and DNA, and providing instructions on how to
genetically manipulate yeast cells so they express green
fluorescence, the same genetic trait found in jellyfish.
Originally, the Odin also instructed homebrewers to add the
engineered yeast to water and honey, which the company didn’t
provide. Left alone for one or two weeks, the yeast would
convert the honey’s sugars into mead, a process called
fermentation. Zayner told BuzzFeed News that the result is
about 5% alcohol.
“Someone can genetically engineer something they can
Last week, I visited Zayner at his Castro Valley townhome for a
taste test, knowing that what I was about to down hadn’t been
FDA-approved. Zayner, who has bleached hair, nose rings, and
ears rimmed with piercings, uncorked the bottle with a pop.
Then he filled up a pair of shot glasses that said “Biohack the
The liquid wasn’t exactly as bright as a glowstick, but under a
blacklight, a slight gleam was visible at the bottom where a
layer of yeast sediment had settled. Zayner said the
three-week-old brew had been more luminous when it was actively
“Cheers,” we said, clinking our glasses.
Earlier in the week, Zayner had said that he didn’t know what
the consequences of his scientific and business experiment
would be, nor was he afraid of finding out. He hadn’t contacted
the FDA before making and putting the kit up for sale,
originally for $225 and now $199.
“As far as we know, there’s no regulation on stuff like this,”
he said, although he conceded that his team may have missed
something while scouring the internet. “We’re kind of a small
company, we’re off the radar. Does the government even care,
would they even care? Even if they did, what would they do?”
It turned out that the government did care. After BuzzFeed News
asked Zayner about the product’s legal status, he contacted the
FDA, and learned the agency had been waiting for his call.
Agency officials held a conference call with Zayner on
Thursday. Zayner taped the call with their permission, and
shared the recording with BuzzFeed News.
On the call, the two sides went back and forth. Three FDA
staffers told Zayner that the green fluorescence protein was
likely a color additive for food, and it hadn’t been recognized
as safe to consume; Zayner questioned whether it was really a
“color” additive when, he noted, the green glow was only
visible under a blacklight. Zayner argued that the kits were
being sold in part as an educational tool; the FDA disagreed.
“If we did continue to sell these kits, what would you guys
do?” Zayner asked during the call.
Jason Dietz, an FDA policy analyst, told him that the agency
could issue a warning letter or, at the extreme end, seize the
company’s equipment — “that would be unlikely, I would hope,”
he added. “Typically people, when they find they’re doing
something unlawful, correct it, because it’s not good for
By the next day, the Odin had tweaked its website. It revised
its instruction manual to remove all mentions of using the
yeast to ferment mead. Gone from the product page, as of Monday
morning, was a photo of a full bottle of mead and most of the
alcohol references, although the site still said that this type
of yeast is meant for mead. It also said, “We see a future in
which people are genetically designing the plants they use in
their garden, eating yogurt that contains a custom bacterial
strain they modified or even someday brewing using an
engineered yeast strain.”
Although he would go on to make the changes, Zayner, ever the
provocateur, felt compelled after the call to point out to
BuzzFeed News all the limits he saw to the FDA’s logic. He
wondered: How could regulators justify potentially seizing his
yeast when yeast, on its own, isn’t a food product? The Odin
didn’t want to harm anyone, Zayner said, but why was the FDA
worried about one fluorescent protein when studies show that
yeasts in general have been evolving and mutating on their
own for centuries?
FDA spokesperson Megan McSeveney told BuzzFeed News on Friday
that the agency “does not have enough information at this time
to determine the regulatory status of this product.” She added
that food manufacturers are responsible for complying with
federal, state, and local laws.
On Monday, Zayner wrote a
blog post in which he backed down even more from the
language used in the original advertising. Yeast made with the
kits, he wrote, had not been FDA-cleared for consumption.
“However,” he wrote, “we believe that there might be people who
would attempt to use our kits to create alcohol against the
FDA’s wishes so we wanted them be knowledgeable about the
He added that the company planned to seek FDA clearance.
Provided that the federal agency approves, Zayner also hopes to
make glow-in-the-dark beer the next craft brewing sensation.
The Odin has teamed up with Inoculum Ale Works, a sour-beer
brewery near Tampa, Florida that wants to make and sell the
beer next year, perhaps online and in its future taproom. The
brewery says it also plans to make beers genetically engineered
to have citrus flavors, for example, or include a nutritional
compound called squalene.
Inoculum CEO and co-owner Nick Moench told BuzzFeed News that,
having spoken to some FDA staff, he’s confident that he and
Zayner will be able to show that the green fluorescence protein
is safe to consume. “This isn’t a small undertaking — it’s
going to take some resource and perseverance,” he said via
Gchat. “Fortunately we’re swimming in perseverance.”
The Odin isn’t the only company that’s genetically altering
yeast to make food. Swiss company Evolva has created synthetic vanillin, the
vanilla flavor in ice cream and cake, which prompted the
environmental activist group Friends of the Earth to condemn it
“extreme form” of genetic engineering. Other Bay Area
biohackers are engineering yeast to make vegan cheese.
They all aim to create foods that are essentially identical to
their conventional counterparts. “The idea with those things is
you have a new way of producing it, but the product is
chemically the same,” said Gregory Kaebnick, a research scholar
at the Hastings Center, a bioethics think tank.
Glow-in-the-dark booze, however, would look quite unlike
conventional homebrews — and that’s where the startup would
potentially clash with the FDA. Before any substances,
including color additives, can be added to food for sale, the
them to either be approved by the agency, or be already
generally recognized by experts as safe to eat.
Approved substances are listed in a federal database. Green
fluorescence proteins are not on that list.
“Obviously, the Odin folks, they’re not interested in making
people sick, they’re not deliberately trying to make something
dangerous,” Kuiken said. But “from the FDA’s standpoint, that
is probably something that they’re going to want to take a look
at, because it hasn’t been looked at before.”
If a food item made with the Odin’s kit were to sicken people,
Kuiken worries that the emerging biohacking community could
fecal transplants, and other boundary-testing science
projects have similarly sparked debates over what ethical
responsibility independent scientists have to police
“We’ve seen in the past when particularly some biotech
companies just ignore the FDA, they can come down on them
really hard, to the point where the companies can get shut
down,” Kuiken said. “That’s something I think we’re all trying
to avoid happening, and we want to encourage this kind of
exploration, but it also needs to be done responsibly.”
Zayner, on the other hand, doesn’t think that cautious behavior
necessarily benefits the DIY biotech community. Taking risks
expands the possibilities of what they can do.
“It’s better to ask forgiveness than permission,” he said,
“because they’re always going to say no to everything.”