The cool new DIY science movement that's changing everything from animals to agriculture.

"We're all here because we want to be the first humans able to fly."

"And we also want to live forever, see through walls, and shoot lasers from our eyeballs," the Ukrainian scientist tells me with a totally straight face. "But that's all science-fiction nonsense for now. So in the meantime, we're just making yogurt with an anti-aging protein, and things like that."


That must be Stamos' secret. GIF from Dannon Oikos/YouTube.

We're standing in the attic of a bicycle repair shop in Somerville, Massachusetts, where a group of local scientists and curious hobbyists have built a do-it-yourself laboratory for homegrown biology experiments.

The space is strewn with secondhand equipment, all scavenged and salvaged from the dumpsters of nearby universities and major pharmaceutical companies. Someone even found a way to use a breast pump to filter out bacteria samples. Yeah.

But as wild as this all may sound, it's hardly the most remarkable thing to come out of the life science revolution that's sweeping across the world.

"I cannot believe my eyes!" — Me, when I saw this stuff. GIF from "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog."

Recent advancements in biotech have made it easier than ever to manipulate and edit DNA with shocking accuracy.

At the forefront of this biological renaissance is a little thing scientists call CRISPR-Cas9, often shortened to just plain ol' CRISPR. It's a system that we pretty much stole from certain bacteria that uses enzymes and something called guide RNA to target and cut sequences of DNA.

But that's all kinds of confusing for non-science-y types, so think of it like this: DNA is full of information that tells a story, like a book. Previously, if we wanted to change any part of this DNA-book, we had to chop up random sections with our metaphorical scissors, or splash white-out on the pages, trying to scribble in new notes wherever we could. Sure, it got the job done sometimes. But it was also pretty messy and inefficient.

The CRISPR system offers a new kind of "find-and-replace" feature. Now we can take our DNA-book and say, "OK, CRISPR, please find that sentence that specifically says, 'Harry met Hagrid.'" Then we can tell it to cut out that particular sentence and either get rid of it entirely or add our own new, much cooler sentence in its place. (Like "Harry met Hagrid and then they high-fived and it was so epic that they destroyed Voldemort and everyone was awesome.")

Got that?

TL;DR: Everything is awesome with CRISPR. GIF from "The LEGO Movie."

Now imagine that instead of just rewriting their own derivative Harry Potter fanfic, scientists can use this "find-and-replace" feature to turn specific genes "on" or "off," or even add new sequences of base pairs into the genome. This makes it easier than ever to go in and splice, add, or change one little piece of genetic information and see what happens.

"It's like a toolkit, essentially," explained Joanne Kamens, executive director of Addgene. "It's like having just the right screwdriver we never had, and it's allowing scientists to create hundreds of new tools and making everything exponentially faster."

A much-more useful CRISPR explainer video. GIF from Desktop Genetics/YouTube.

This kind of super-accurate gene editing — and genetic synthesis in general — have become more accessible in the past few years.

CRISPR might be the prom queen of the biggest labs, but there are other similar versions of this kind of precision gene-editing technology — like the methods that my Ukrainian friend was using in that attic. And these tools are collectively changing the world as we know it, in attics and labs all over the world.

Let's go down the DNA rabbit hole... GIF from McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT/YouTube.

Here are five of the most fascinating inventions and discoveries we've seen in biotech to date:

1. Gene editing could help us limit, or maybe even destroy, diseases like malaria and cancer.

Now that we can slice into DNA with alarming accuracy, we can target exactly where diseases exist in the body and how drugs get delivered to kill those diseases. It's like a microbiological version of "Mission: Impossible" when you're trying to defuse a bomb — gene editing tells you exactly which wire to cut, without the risk of blowing up the building (which in this case is a human body).

Scientists at the University of California San Francisco, for example, have found a way to turn human T cells into hyper-efficient disease-killing machines. Similarly, at Temple University, researchers are using CRISPR to literally cut HIV out of live subjects. Pretty neat, huh?

As for those pesky mosquito-born illnesses plaguing our warming world, CRISPR has already made it easier to identify diseases such as Zika, malaria, and West Nile in patients and hosts alike — and some scientists hope to use gene editing to remove the disease-carrying capability from the mosquito genome entirely, destroying them at the source.

EXACTLY. GIF from "Adventure Time."

2. This same application is revolutionizing how we study mental health, too.

Scientists at MIT have already used gene editing to create lab mice with autism and OCD so they can better understand what causes those conditions and how best to treat them.

If they can create those conditions, they might be able to un-create them, too, by essentially flipping a switch on the problematic genes. (The only trick is figuring out with certainty which specific genes out of the billions in our body are causing the problems, which is easier said than done.)

I know, Krang. It's pretty mind-blowing. GIF from "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."

3. It could also help us bring back the wooly mammoth or any other number of crazy chimera breeds.

Yup: Scientists at Harvard University successfully spliced wooly mammoth DNA into elephant cells. This is just on a cellular level so far, mind you; no one's prepared to go all "Jurassic Park" without looking into all the potential ramifications of such a project.

But, I mean, you knew this was coming, right? As cool and generally comforting as these other remarkable projects have been, we're still talking about genetic engineering, so of course there'd be some kind of super-powered kaiju-animal hybrids in the cards.

In China, scientists have already used CRISPR to breed dogs with twice the muscle mass by simply deleting one gene from their DNA. And in Boston, they've found a way to modify pig organs to make them compatible with human bodies in need of transplant donors.

And if you're wondering about the practical applications and ethical justifications of these kinds of projects, well ... those are totally valid things to be concerned about. But scientists are actively engaged in those discussions, and if it makes you feel any better, we're probably still a long way away from creating fully customizable mature synthetic humans. Probably.


My thoughts exactly, Doc Brown. GIF from "Back to the Future."

4. Gene editing could also help to revamp the entire agriculture industry — without the use of any off-putting genetic additives.

GMOs get a bad wrap. But gene editing is different from, say, adding a bit of flounder DNA into a tomato, which is why the FDA recently approved the first CRISPR-modified mushroom for human consumption.

These specially designed mushrooms have a greater resistance to browning — again, not because of any scary-sounding chemicals or foreign genes, but simply because biologists found a way to isolate and shut off the naturally occurring genes that caused the mushrooms to turn brown after you cut into them.

That's it. Really. Nothing scary about it.

Naturally occurring mushroom-hat parachutes are still in the early developmental stages. GIF from "Super Mario Bros. Super Show."

This method is also working to create disease-resistant plants, which is how a team at Seoul National University is trying to save the banana. Because why bother introducing pesticides or foreign genetic material when you can just poke at the DNA that the plant already has to improve its nutrient content and help it survive under less-than-ideal conditions? It's not quite "natural" in the traditional sense, but it's also not so different from the exchange and selective breeding of crops that's been going on for centuries.

Just, ya know — easier, and cooler-sounding.

So that's what Beaker's been meeping about all these years! GIF from "The Muppet Show."

5. But perhaps most importantly, gene editing is lowering the bar for scientific research and making it accessible to everyone.

Until recently, a lot of genetic and biotech data was protected behind intellectual property laws and institutional restrictions. But now? Anyone can buy an all-in-one CRISPR starter kit online or order a plasmid straight from a place like Addgene for a mere $65 and see what they can do with it ... just like those guys in the Somerville attic.

"It's like designing apps" for smartphones, said DeskGen's A.J. Ajetunmobi. DeskGen is a biotech startup that offers free open-source desktop gene-editing software, allowing anyone to design an experiment from anywhere in the world.

"People can focus on fixing problems instead of learning how to code," he said. "In life sciences, we're still stuck teaching people how to code. It's hard to teach that and still keep minds open."

GIF from "Dexter's Laboratory."

"Diversity of perspective makes everything better. People are so much more innovative when they're not coming at it from a specific overhead," Ajetunmobi added.

The possibilities for progress are endless as long as the opportunities are available to everyone — not just the pharmaceutical companies who can afford to pay millions for special equipment and data.

"The barriers to entry [in biotech] are significant," Ajetunmobi told me with an eyeroll and a laugh, before pointing out that it would be logistically difficult for an individual — say, a 30-year-old writer who is me — to obtain all the necessary plasmids and parts to breed a personal army of altruistic disease-resistant pig-human hybrid super-farmers with laser vision and flight capabilities.

"But now, there's nothing technically stopping anyone from experimenting and exploring."

Maybe you, too, can create your own web-shooters! ... Maybe. GIF from "The Amazing Spider-Man."

Personally, I decided to keep it simple and stick with the DIY bioluminescent yeast starter kit.

I'll leave the cool sci-fi-sounding progress to the pros (or to my new friends trying to find the fountain of youth in yogurt). But it's still nice to know that the opportunity is out there for anyone eager enough to give it a try.

Who knows? Maybe that 14-year-old kid next door will find a way to make pigs fly sooner than we think.

Courtesy of Amita Swadhin
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In 2016, Amita Swadhin, a child of two immigrant parents from India, founded Mirror Memoirs to help combat rape culture. The national storytelling and organizing project is dedicated to sharing the stories of LGBTQIA+ Black, indigenous people, and people of color who survived child sexual abuse.

"Whether or not you are a survivor, 100% of us are raised in rape culture. It's the water that we're swimming in. But just as fish don't know they are in water, because it's just the world around them that they've always been in, people (and especially those who aren't survivors) may need some help actually seeing it," they add.

"Mirror Memoirs attempts to be the dye that helps everyone understand the reality of rape culture."

Amita built the idea for Mirror Memoirs from a theater project called "Undesirable Elements: Secret Survivors" that featured their story and those of four other survivors in New York City, as well as a documentary film and educational toolkit based on the project.

"Secret Survivors had a cast that was gender, race, and age-diverse in many ways, but we had neglected to include transgender women," Amita explains. "Our goal was to help all people who want to co-create a world without child sexual abuse understand that the systems historically meant to help survivors find 'healing' and 'justice' — namely the child welfare system, policing, and prisons — are actually systems that facilitate the rape of children in oppressed communities," Amita continues. "We all have to explore tools of healing and accountability outside of these systems if we truly want to end all forms of sexual violence and rape culture."

Amita also wants Mirror Memoirs to be a place of healing for survivors that have historically been ignored or underserved by anti-violence organizations due to transphobia, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy.

Amita Swadhin

"Hearing survivors' stories is absolutely healing for other survivors, since child sexual abuse is a global pandemic that few people know how to talk about, let alone treat and prevent."

"Since sexual violence is an isolating event, girded by shame and stigma, understanding that you're not alone and connecting with other survivors is alchemy, transmuting isolation into intimacy and connection."

This is something that Amita knows and understands well as a survivor herself.

"My childhood included a lot of violence from my father, including rape and other forms of domestic violence," says Amita. "Mandated reporting was imposed on me when I was 13 and it was largely unhelpful since the prosecutors threatened to incarcerate my mother for 'being complicit' in the violence I experienced, even though she was also abused by my father for years."

What helped them during this time was having the support of others.

"I'm grateful to have had a loving younger sister and a few really close friends, some of whom were also surviving child sexual abuse, though we didn't know how to talk about it at the time," Amita says.

"I'm also a queer, non-binary femme person living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and those identities have shaped a lot of my life experiences," they continue. "I'm really lucky to have an incredible partner and network of friends and family who love me."

"These realizations put me on the path of my life's work to end this violence quite early in life," they said.

Amita wants Mirror Memoirs to help build awareness of just how pervasive rape culture is. "One in four girls and one in six boys will be raped or sexually assaulted by the age of 18," Amita explains, "and the rates are even higher for vulnerable populations, such as gender non-conforming, disabled, deaf, unhoused, and institutionalized children." By sharing their stories, they're hoping to create change.

"Listening to stories is also a powerful way to build empathy, due to the mirror neurons in people's brains. This is, in part, why the project is called Mirror Memoirs."

So far, Mirror Memoirs has created an audio archive of BIPOC LGBTQI+ child sexual abuse survivors sharing their stories of survival and resilience that includes stories from 60 survivors across 50 states. This year, they plan to record another 15 stories, specifically of transgender and nonbinary people who survived child sexual abuse in a sport-related setting, with their partner organization, Athlete Ally.

"This endeavor is in response to the more than 100 bills that have been proposed across at least 36 states in 2021 seeking to limit the rights of transgender and non-binary children to play sports and to receive gender-affirming medical care with the support of their parents and doctors," Amita says.

In 2017, Mirror Memoirs held its first gathering, which was attended by 31 people. Today, the organization is a fiscally sponsored, national nonprofit with two staff members, a board of 10 people, a leadership council of seven people, and 500 members nationally.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, they created a mutual aid fund for the LGBTQIA+ community of color and were able to raise a quarter-million dollars. They received 2,509 applications for assistance, and in the end, they decided to split the money evenly between each applicant.

While they're still using storytelling as the building block of their work, they're also engaging in policy and advocacy work, leadership development, and hosting monthly member meetings online.

For their work, Amita is one of Tory's Burch's Empowered Women. Their donation will go to Mirror Memoirs to help fund production costs for their new theater project, "Transmutation: A Ceremony," featuring four Black transgender, intersex, and non-binary women and femmes who live in California.

"I'm grateful to every single child sexual survivor who has ever disclosed their truth to me," Amita says. "I know another world is possible, and I know survivors will build it, together with all the people who love us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

The year 2018 was a pivotal one in the produce industry, the Red Delicious was supplanted as the most popular apple in America by the sweeter, crisper Gala.

It was only a matter of time. The Red Delicious looked the part of the king of the apples with its deep red, flawless skin. But its interior was soft, mealy, and pretty bland. The Red Delicious was popular for growers because its skin hid any bruises and it was desired by consumers because of its appearance.

But these days it's having a hard time competing with the delectable crunch provided by the Gala, honeycrisp, and Fuji.

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When a pet is admitted to a shelter it can be a traumatizing experience. Many are afraid of their new surroundings and are far from comfortable showing off their unique personalities. The problem is that's when many of them have their photos taken to appear in online searches.

Chewy, the pet retailer who has dedicated themselves to supporting shelters and rescues throughout the country, recognized the important work of a couple in Tampa, FL who have been taking professional photos of shelter pets to help get them adopted.

"If it's a photo of a scared animal, most people, subconsciously or even consciously, are going to skip over it," pet photographer Adam Goldberg says. "They can't visualize that dog in their home."

Adam realized the importance of quality shelter photos while working as a social media specialist for the Humane Society of Broward County in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"The photos were taken top-down so you couldn't see the size of the pet, and the flash would create these red eyes," he recalls. "Sometimes [volunteers] would shoot the photos through the chain-link fences."

That's why Adam and his wife, Mary, have spent much of their free time over the past five years photographing over 1,200 shelter animals to show off their unique personalities to potential adoptive families. The Goldbergs' wonderful work was recently profiled by Chewy in the video above entitled, "A Day in the Life of a Shelter Pet Photographer."