'Peace Between Science and Religion': Why Teen Biohacker Injected 'Scriptural' DNA Into His Body

Adrien Locatelli of Grenoble, 16, aspired to bridge between faith and facts and seems mainly to have wound up inoculating himself against E. coli

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Adrien Locatelli
Adrien Locatelli Credit: Courtesy of Adrien Locatelli

Some people take Bible studies very seriously. But injecting oneself in the leg with bits of lab-made junk DNA based on verses from the Old Testament and Koran takes things to a whole new level.

Happily, Adrien Locatelli says that five months after the event, he has suffered no ill effects from his biohack – that he's noticed, at least.

Locatelli, a 16-year-old high school student from Grenoble, France, unveiled his achievement in an academic-type paper published in OSF Preprints, a site devoted to "open science."

The paper was, no doubt accurately, titled "The first injection in a human being of macromolecules whose primary structure was developed from a religious text." 

Injecting oneself with artificial DNA is asking for trouble. But five months after his exploits, Locatelli reassures that he feels "very good" emotionally and physically. "Injections of junk DNA and junk proteins are not dangerous," he says, explaining his thinking to Haaretz.

As Locatelli wonderfully clarifies in his paper: "I am the only subject of this study and I gave my informed consent." Informed? No gene therapist would bet his microscope on that, but Locatelli feels that the probability of harm from injecting junk DNA and junk proteins "is almost zero."

In any case, he tells Haaretz, he only injected himself with tiny amounts. The worst effect he suffered (so far at least) was discomfort at one of the two injection sites – like a mosquito bite, he says, adding, "I know why: It's because, to save money, I ordered a product of poor purity containing 'remains' of E. coli, like in a vaccine. I vaccinated myself against E. coli."

Say it in codons

Young Locatelli was inspired by efforts to convert digital information into DNA, as an alternative data storage method. But he went in reverse. "I wondered whether it would be possible to convert a religious text into DNA," he told Haaretz.

Kissing bears on the mouth is also possible, but not a great idea. Anyway: The religious texts he chose to translate into DNA were from Genesis and the Koran. He chose them because the Torah was the first monotheistic book and the Koran the last one, he explains.

"DNA and proteins are macromolecules having a primary structure which can be written with letters," Locatelli begins his paper, accurately again.  

DNA codes for proteins use just four "letters" (nucleobases): guanine (G for short), adenine (A), cytosine (C) and thymine (T). To make proteins, enzymes prise apart appropriate sections of the DNA double helix and "read" the code, building sequences of the amino acids according to the order dictated by the genetic code.

Locatelli built a Hebrew-DNA translation table by replacing each of the 22 Hebrew letters with a letter of the DNA "alphabet," according to the order GATC. 

Thus, the first letter, aleph, was translated as G (a guanine base); beit as A (adenine); gimel was translated as C (cytosine), the fourth letter, dalet, was done as T (thymine), and the fifth letter, heh, went back to A (adenine). And so on. Thus, each Hebrew letter received its DNA base equivalent.

Why choose G as aleph and so on? Why not ACGT or whatever? "My choice to associate the Hebrew letters with repeating GACT is not random," Locatelli explains. "I started with G because the glycine – the simplest amino acid [that makes up proteins] – can be coded with the codon GGG."

Locatelli downloaded Genesis in Hebrew from Fourmilab and the surah Ar-Ra’d from holyquran.net. He translated the written letters into DNA letters and had those translated into protein form.

Unsurprisingly, what he wound up with is known in the argot as junk DNA – meaning it didn't code for any actual useful protein, though he had it translated into short protein chains.

START here

Our genomes are absolutely stuffed with junk DNA. For all the talk about gene therapy, science is still in its infancy when it comes to actually understanding how our DNA works. But we have figured out that some of this "junk" is actually regulatory sequences, such as the DNA's version of a command to the protein-manufacturing enzymes, "START reading me HERE … STOP reading me HERE."

Locatelli noticed, he says, that his Bible-based sequence actually contained the "start" command codon ATG. The rest was, he fully admits, "nonsense" sequences featuring the "stop" command codon.

But then he hadn't set out to produce some new miraculous protein based on biblical texts. Nor was the goal of his experiment to store biblical and koranic text in genetic form. It was just to obtain DNA and proteins for a symbolic purpose, he explains.

Which was? "I did this experiment only for the symbol: A symbol of peace between science and religions," Locatelli says. 

He isn't the first biohacker, of course, though the others are generally guided by ill-thought aspirations to become superhuman. The BBC, for instance, reported on one Liviu Babitz, a 38-year-old adult who decided that what he really needs is an implant so his chest knows when it's pointing north.  

Bridging religion and science somehow sounds more noble than, for instance, opening one's garage with the wave of a finger – a la Rich Lee, a biohacker who uses the handle Lovetron on Twitter.

Science acknowledges that some mysteries remain unresolved, including the true nature of the primordial event that preceded all events: the Big Bang. Some scientists even suspect that the sheer, incomprehensible complexity of the evolution of life indicates divine planning.

Certainly, whatever else Adrien Locatelli aspired to achieve, the kids at his school don't seem to have seen any light. Asked how they reacted to his stunt, he admits, "They did not tell me anything special."