David Ishee is a dog breeder originally from Mississippi who first came into the spotlight in 2016 when he decided to biohack Mastiff puppies to make them glow in the dark. In 2019, he was one of the leads in a Netflix documentary, “Unnatural Selection,” which dramatically changed his life. He also played a crucial role in an HIV vaccination effort, working with Aaron Traywick, an entrepreneur who was found dead in a meditation spa at the age of 28. They made a documentary, “Citizen Bio,” about this. Last year, he moved to Texas to work in a biotechnology lab.
David Ishee is confident and on a mission to make genetic modification accessible to everyone. He explains the tools he uses on his YouTube channel and teaches how genetic modification works. “Who reads books these days?” Dog breeding runs in David’s family and comes naturally to him.
That’s an easy one, the Midgard Mastiff. I’ve been breeding them to be precisely what I want in a dog for the last 15 years, so it’s not surprising they are my favorite.
It varies. I don’t keep many dogs at once because I don’t like the idea of making a dog into a lifelong breeder. So, my breeding program is focused on covering a lot of generations to maximize the effects of selective breeding to improve the breed. So I’ve had anywhere from 3 to 20 dogs depending on what each generation needs and if I’ve found good family homes for the previous generation yet. The goal is that the dogs get to spend most of their lives as someone’s family guardian and just a few early years with us while they contribute to improving the genetics of the Mastiffs.
The typical procedure is to select the breeders and kennel them together while the female is in heat. Generally, the dogs will do the rest all by themselves. If there are issues of availability or the dogs don’t get along, the breeder can help calm them or even breed them by AI while separated.
Courage, loyalty, health, athleticism, affection, speed, robustness of body and mind, trustworthiness, and low maintenance.
I first had the idea in 2014 after watching a TED talk, then spent the following years learning and getting my lab and equipment sourced or built.
“The nice thing about science is it’s a great teacher in itself. If you make a mistake, things don’t work, so you have to find and fix the error before things start happening.“
I didn’t really have any training in genetics, at least not in the usual sense. I learned a lot of the theoretical stuff from free educational material online. Then, I learned the general protocols, built a lab, and got hands-on experience. The nice thing about science is it’s a great teacher in itself. If you make a mistake, things don’t work, so you have to find and fix the error before things start happening. I also made many great friends in the biohacking community who I could turn to for help when I couldn’t solve something myself. Being isolated in a small town in rural Mississippi made it impossible to have someone sit down and teach me much, but every bit helps.
I’ve been able to get the gene into dog sperm, and I have pictures of that with fluorescent-labeled DNA, but those sperm haven’t produced a litter yet. It’s the first time this protocol has been done with dogs, but it works in pigs and other animals. Getting it to work in dogs has taken a lot of adaptation of the protocol, and the process is slow since I can only try breeding every six months based on the heat cycles of dogs. So, the process will take more time, but when it’s done, there will be a much simpler protocol for engineering dogs. It’ll be something simple enough a dog breeder can do it.
“One big thing I learned is to never work with someone without meeting them in person.”
Well, it got a lot more attention for my work and was a large part of why I got the job I have now as a genetic engineer and how I was able to move to Texas.
One big thing I learned is to never work with someone without meeting them in person. Had I done more than talk to Aaron on the phone, I would have picked up on his character better. There is a lot that body language can tell you about someone’s motives and personality. I quit working with them for ethical reasons a few weeks before Aaron died.
I do. Dogs are our most complex and longest-running genetics experiment and have taught us much about how mammals work. Those lessons help us understand ourselves and what’s possible for people.
“Adapting a planet to be suitable for humans could take hundreds of thousands of years or more, but adjusting the humans could be done in a generation or two.”
That’s a complicated question because there are so many. Curing all genetic diseases is the first thing, then engineering humans to be resistant to other diseases, conditions, and environmental factors like cancer, toxic chemicals, radiation, viruses, and even aging. All of that is just the obvious stuff everyone can see. Beyond just removing the ills of life, it can also add to the experience of living in new ways, giving humans access to new environments, new senses, and new ways of being human. It’ll also be a necessary part of making humans meaningfully multi-planetary. Adapting a planet to be suitable for humans could take hundreds of thousands of years or more, but adjusting the humans could be done in a generation or two.
That’s a hard one to know from where we are now. Looking forward, it’s impossible to predict the consequences of our actions now with much more certainty than a guess. We should treat it like most technology and draw the line at things that harm others. I can’t imagine a future 5 or 10 thousand years from now with much respect for the limits and rules we might imagine today.
I’ve done it a few times. The plan is to engineer some of my stem cells in a way that allows me to investigate the possibility of using them as a carrier for modified genes. There are some exciting upsides regarding the possible cost and complexity of edits. Ideally, it’ll allow someone to DIY a minor gene therapy with some opportunity to do a lot of quality control before committing. It was also fun to grow and induce them into other cell types. My favorite was when I turned some of them into bone cells, and they started making bone in the culture.
“The cost of gene therapy is disgustingly profit-driven, leaving many suffering with lifelong illnesses that don’t have to suffer.”
The cost of gene therapy is disgustingly profit-driven, leaving many suffering with lifelong illnesses that don’t have to suffer. The main issue is these therapies aren’t expensive to grow. They charge enough to make profits, like selling a pill daily for a lifetime. That’s why many of these gene therapies are over a million dollars a dose. Making an inexpensive DIY protocol that works would at least give some options to the people suffering and dying who can’t afford a million-dollar injection.
It depends on the edit. For some things, it’s just gloves and simple stuff if I’m doing something easy and basic, like making some yeast glow or a plant change colors. I do much more for human gene therapy or animals, primarily testing for toxins and evaluating the therapy in cell culture first. Lots of testing and confirming each step did what it was supposed to do before moving on.
Lots of different things, from natural things like failure to contamination, mutation, etc., to technical stuff like machines messing up or breaking, to human things like regulators making obstacles, and the FBI calling me to check up on what I’m doing and why.
“I fear that in our fear of the unknown, we’ll give the power to determine the future of human evolution to just a few powerful men.“
In the distant future, I expect it to change everything. We won’t live in a humanity of one species anymore. There will be humans for every niche. Humans adapted for water worlds, irradiated deserts, living in the clouds of gas giants, or deep underground on frozen moons. We’ll rewrite ourselves and dream up whole new ecosystems for worlds that never had one. It’s our destiny to spread out from the earth and bring new life everywhere we go. I expect us to garden the galaxy. Shortly, I expect us to start taking those first steps. I hope we take them wisely and with courage. I fear that in our fear of the unknown, we’ll give the power to determine the future of human evolution to just a few powerful men. Then we have to hope they decide to be guided by kindness and wisdom, but I don’t expect that’ll be their choice with so much power.
I’m the most proud of the DIY biologists and biohackers whom I’ve been able to help turn into a thriving community of people sharing tools, techniques, and knowledge. Democratized science and biotechnology is the only force pushing back against a future where a small number of influential people control the destiny of human evolution, and that’s a power too great to be in the hands of anyone other than all of us.
I get up to work to check on my experiments and projects. Then, I push them forward or wait for them to get to where they need to be so I can. I get ready to share the results of finished projects. I drive home, say hi to my family, and then check on my mundane and genetic home projects. I hang out with my kids and wife, then I go to bed and do it again tomorrow. Sometimes, I’m up all night working on a project or trying to fit a tight timeline because living organisms have their schedules you have to work around.
“This generation is at the inflection point. From here, the future of humanity turns forever in a new direction or many new directions all at once. We are the generation that gets to shape that change.”
This generation is at the inflection point. From here, the future of humanity turns forever in a new direction or many new directions all at once. We are the generation that gets to shape that change. Now is the time to become a part of the most significant change in human history, a change as powerful as the discovery of fire or agriculture. This discovery will change everything in a way very few people ever get to witness, much less participate in, and you have that chance. Please take advantage of the opportunity to do something beautiful with it.
I continue to learn more and get new skills, teach people what I know, and hopefully create an infrastructure that facilitates more people’s collective impact on furthering genetics and biohacking.
That’s a VERY long list of changes if I made the rules, but mostly, I’d like them to grow up in a world that’s more fair-minded, more kind, more courageous, and a world of people who could see beauty in the future and were willing to fight for that beauty.
This picture was taken from a microscope camera, genetically engineered sperm cells with fluorescent-labeled DNA from a mastiff under a fluorescent microscope.
Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna discovered a technique called CRISPR-Cas9 in 2012. It is a kind of scissors and glue in which a DNA sequence replaces a new sequence piece. In this way, they can repair the DNA in the event of a hereditary disease. This technique is, therefore, promising. Besides curing diseases, they can do much more with it.
CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced palindromic repeats) is a kind of cut-and-paste scissors extracted from a bacterium, and Cas9 is a protein that recognizes which piece of DNA you want to change based on a particular pattern.
The Midgard Mastiff is a large and powerful dog breed with a long history. They were used as guard dogs, hunters, war dogs, and even for blood sports. These loyal dogs are loyal and protective but have a soft side and are good with children. A more experienced owner who understands what these dogs need is required. They need space, daily exercise, good socialization, and loving care to stay healthy and happy. With their versatile qualities, Midgard Mastiffs can be a wonderful friend.
Dicky, my great-aunt I was named after (my nickname is Dick), was confined to a wheelchair most of her life. At the age of 18, she was diagnosed with polio. As a child, we, together with my parents, v...
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