This Biohacker Is Trying to Help People Make Their Own Estrogen
Hormone anarchy, in a quest for more body autonomy for cis and trans women.
In late 2015, Mary Maggic, also known as Mary Tsang, a biologist and scientist at the MIT Media Lab, launched a project called “Open Source Estrogen.” Its goal, as Maggic outlined in a video entitled “Housewives Making Drugs,” was to develop protocols that everyday individuals could use to make their own estrogen in kitchen labs. Her hope is that they would transform “a politically charged space prescribed to women as their proper dwelling” into a space for cis and trans women to take greater control over their bodies by creating their own birth control, gender transition, or menopause symptom alleviation hormone replacement therapies, sans institutional gatekeepers.
The project has evolved over the past two years, with Maggic recently producing a speculative episode of a "cooking" show in which two trans stars walk an audience through how to extract estrogen from human urine, purify it, and mix it into gin cocktails. Maggic also does workshops with the public these days—at biohacker or progressive body autonomy conferences and few college campuses—demonstrating how to extract estrogen from urine.
But it is still not real, per se. Open Source Estrogen, Maggic outlines for those encountering the project, is a work of speculative design. Hormones extracted from urine aren’t sufficient for any real uses alone, or free of serious side effects, and the tools and protocols to do anything more complex are still largely inaccessible. The goal of the project, as Maggic’s mission statement says, has always been less about actualizing the bio-hacked future it imagines and more about demystifying endocrinology, de-reifying gender, and asking people to examine the institutions that control hormone production. It’s especially a call to examine how these institutions limit our access to hormones (for purposes of bodily autonomy) yet widely disperse them into the environment as industrial pollutants with dangerous effects on plants, animals, and us.
However Maggic quickly learned that many people encountering the project work deeply wanted it to be real. For too many people in the world, obtaining hormonal birth control or menopause treatment is expensive, a hassle, or near impossible. Getting hormones for gender transitions is almost always even harder. Even when people can get them, they might want an alternative as well, if they don’t trust their doctor or don’t like the side effects of what they have. The desire to see Open Source Estrogen realized, says Byron Rich, one of Maggic’s collaborators, “is immensely sad, as it speaks to how sick we are as a culture in not changing our culture” to allow for wider bodily autonomy.
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Maggic's project includes the basic outlines of a number of pathways to home-synthesized hormones. Broadly, these include gene-editing organisms like yeast or plants into bio-factories to pump out hormones, or extracting hormones from urine or bodies of water and then purifying it into a usable substance. They sound farfetched, but as biologists tell us, they’re all plausible.
Many people already do basic home biosynthesis, says University of Ottawa biologist Andrew Pelling, although perhaps the best-known examples—home meth or THC labs—are morally charged. And encoding plants or yeast to pump out molecules is fairly old hat science by now. Making hormones is a little more complex than making something like meth, he notes, thanks to the intricate molecular machinery at work to produce them in our own bodies. So developing a protocol to chemically synthesize them, or creating plants or yeast that manufacture them, would likely require time and endocrinal and biological expertise, not just basic lay science. But once protocols exist, Pelling says, anyone can acquire or make the required supplies for chemical synthesis. Or, once an initial plant or yeast culture is produced, Maggic says, “these organisms can be shared, along with protocols on how to maintain them, care for them, keep them reproducing,” and extract hormones from them.
At least one biohacker biologist-artist, Ryan Hammond, is actively working to make tobacco plants that produce estrogen or testosterone, a project they call “Open Source Gendercodes.” Maggic considers this work the closest humanity has come to democratized hormones to date.
Buy even if one could figure out how to make hormones at home with minimal scientific know-how, Pelling notes, that unless you've done your due diligence, you will have no idea what sort of side products have been produced and what their toxicity is, as every synthesis can go a little wonky. “You also won’t have an idea of how much of your target molecule is present and exactly how much to administer," he adds. That’s doubly true because dosage usually varies by body. The supplies to inspect a synthesized product are expensive and complicated. And you’d need to repeat the process for multiple hormones; one in isolation is usually not enough for any given endocrinal task.
The difficulty of figuring out purity and dosage for a layperson naturally lead to concerns about the risky side effects of overdoses or accidental doses of impurities. A lack of regulation also runs the risk of laypeople massively increasing environmental hormonal pollution, with detrimental effects to plants, animals, and us. Part of Maggic’s project was not just to envision a liberated future, but to push people to engage with these risks and ethical quandaries.
Desire for greater hormonal autonomy runs so high, though, that people are already willing to do equally risky, if not riskier, things to achieve it, like obtaining illicit and questionable hormones on the black of grey markets. And to a certain extent, society has decided that it's willing to tolerate risks in the name of dire need, as when the media applauded efforts to create protocols for DIY EpiPens in 2016 when industry gatekeepers briefly jacked up their official prices, despite similar risks.
Some think the risks of at-home hormone synthesis and use can be mitigated. Josiah Zayner, a biochemist who formerly worked for NASA and advocates for lay science, says that complex tasks like measuring purity and dosages could be outsourced to individuals with the proper machinery and expertise. This lines up with Hammond’s vision of DIWO (do-it-with-others) support networks, matching those with skills to those with needs in a liberated hormonal environment. Networks already exist, Maggic points out, to help those procuring hormones on their own to figure out the right dose. Ideally these networks might also be able to limit, through education and peer oversight, the risks of wanton endocrinal pollution as well, or help people recognize and avoid hormonal environmental contaminants as they see fit. (Maggic has envisioned protocols for a DIY environmental hormone detection tool.)
Whether any system could control for all the risks inherent in a world of DIY hormones remains highly speculative. (Maggic harbors doubts that we’ll ever be able to account for all the complex ways hormones can interact with our own bodies and the wider environment, much less control them.) So does the question of whether or when anyone working on at-home synthesis protocols will hammer out a viable system. But the concepts, though aspirational, are not absurd. DIY hormones are theoretically viable and factually desirable enough that the idea demands discussion and engagement. And by engaging with the idea, as Maggic and others are pushing the world to do, we stand to learn so much of value about our own bodies and the systems that control what we can do with them, as well as what happens to them through pollution, without our consent.
“Just as important as the protocols,” Maggic says, “is the cultural discourse” such ideas inspire.
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