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A group of Biohackers. In the middle, one of the members holds an Apple laptop. Josiah Zayner  stands beside the laptop

Josiah Zayner took a swig from his beer and squinted into the spotlight. He was already kind of drunk. He also hadn’t bothered to write a speech. Tattooed and heavily pierced with a shock of blue-gray hair, he shuffled around uneasily on stage. But 150-odd people had flown in from around the country to hear him speak—the mad pirate-king of biotech.

“It all is coming from my heart,” he said, choking up a little. “Everything you’re going to hear today is me to the core.”

Zayner’s audience sat in the fashionably decaying ballroom of an old garbage collectors’ social club in Oakland. They had come from universities, startups and do-it-yourself garage biolabs, united if not by a love of citizen science then by a curiosity as to what it is exactly that Zayner is up to. A computer nerd turned NASA scientist turned establishment-science cynic, Zayner is something like the self-appointed leader of a small but burgeoning biohacking movement. He presides over a loose coterie of professional and self-taught scientists who believe that ground-breaking science does not require either...