Photo Credit: MIT Technology Review
By: Paul Kumst, Columnist
Released in February 2016, the Annual Worldwide Threats Assessment of the US Intelligence Community categorized gene editing as a potential weapon of mass destruction (WMD).[i] It expressed concern about the malicious potential stemming from the “accelerated pace of development” of genetic engineering. Although the report does not go into detail about specific genetic engineering technologies, CRISPR—a new genome editing process—has gained the attention of researchers and national security experts alike. While offering various benign applications, national security experts say it should be treated as a security risk, similar to threats from North Korean nuclear capabilities and the use of chemical weapons by Syria. In response to the potential malicious use of CRISPR, the scientific and international community should create guidelines for the research and application of CRISPR technology that balance minimizing the risks of CRISPR while maximizing its potential for beneficial uses.
CRISPR-Cas9 is an advanced technology that enables researchers to splice and edit genes in a faster, cheaper, and more accurate way than previous genetic engineering methods.[ii] CRISPR, a collection of DNA sequences, instructs Cas enzymes to snip specific DNA.[iii] It is now possible to “cut and paste” bits of DNA into the genome wherever researchers want.[iv] CRISPR has various applications ranging from improved treatments of diseases such as cancer or HIV to highly controversial uses such as creating designer babies.[v] Celebrated as ground-breaking, it now enters its third year as serious competitor for the Nobel Prize.[vi]
However, CRISPR could also be used for malicious purposes—either intentionally or unintentionally. So far, the production and weaponization of a CRISPR-bioweapon remains a very difficult task. Not only would it require mastering a “wide raft of technologies”, it would also require an extensive and highly sophisticated knowledge about genes and pathogens as well, decreasing the threat of CRISPR being used by non-state actors for bioterrorism.[vii] While its risks definitely should be taken seriously, the CRISPR method itself will not automatically make a bioweapon.
Nevertheless, CRISPR could also produce unintentional serious consequences as a side effect of benign use. For example, CRISPR in combination with another technology can alter the way genes are inherited to future generations. As opposed to unbiased inheritance, the gene-drive-technology enforces the inheritance and expression of a particular gene in all subsequent generations. Thus, a CRISPR edited gene combined with a gene-drive rapidly passes through the successive generations, deleting unwanted characteristics.[viii] This process can be used to remove traits from future generations, such as the fertility of invasive species, like the Asian Carp in the Mississippi river.[ix] While editing the genes of the Asian Carp could have the positive benefit of removing a threat to the surrounding habitat, this method could pose unintended consequences if the modified species would somehow find its way into countries where the food supply relies heavily on this particular fish. Potentially erasing the local food supply, the spill-over effects of CRISPR could result in disastrous socioeconomic consequences.
What makes CRISPR particular worrisome for intelligence agencies is the accessibility, speed, and ease of using it. The basic CRISPR technology can be bought for as little as $140, resulting in rapid distribution of DIY-facilities which potentially gain the unregulated ability to create inheritable genetic changes.[x] To help mitigate threats from the misuse of CRISPR, the scientific community should agree on basic limits, norms, and guidelines for the publication of research pertaining to and the use of CRISPR. Doing so could prevent malicious actors from using the research for dangerous CRISPR applications. There is precedent for scientists agreeing to norms to minimize the dangerous potential of a cutting edge technology: in 1975, scientists created a self-imposed set of guidelines on researching on recombinant DNA. A group of scientists formulated voluntary guidelines which helped to continue with their research in a more responsible manner and ultimately contributed to its positive impact.[xi] While such talks for CRISPR are already under way, it remains a challenge to include all major players due to conflicting interests.[xii] For example, Chinese scientists continued nevertheless with its advances on modifying the genome of human embryos. Despite such drawbacks, the CRISPR community needs to continue formulating their own guidelines in order to help formulate national policies and binding legislation with objective threat assessments.[xiii]
Furthermore, the upcoming review conference of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC)—which is already expected to discuss implications of CRISPR—should be updated to address the risks stemming from CRISPR. Member countries should act together to provide proper training and awareness of the potential dangers. The national institutions in charge of oversight of genetic engineering need to be strengthened and better coordinated. More broadly, countries should ask whether CRISPR and the advent of a more decentralized research approach require fundamentally new approaches to regulation. It might no longer be sufficient to focus on verification and equipment standards. Instead, countries should emphasize the precautionary principle and put a greater focus on putting personnel through more sophisticated safety and emergency training.[xiv] If updated, the BWC could help as most fundamental institutional framework to restrain potential threats of emerging technologies such as CRISPR.
CRISPR is here to stay. Given its revolutionary benign potential, an outright ban would not only seem unrealistic but also counterproductive. After all, research in this field could also be utilized defensively against rogue applications. The threat assessment report serves as a reminder that every technology always also includes its downside. Although currently unlikely, malicious potentials of CRISPR should not be ignored but instead be addressed by scientists and the international community.
[i] Senate Armed Services Committee, “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the UC Intelligence Community”, http://www.dni.gov/files/documents/SASC_Unclassified_2016_ATA_SFR_FINAL.pdf
[ii] Jennifer Doudna, Emmanuelle Charpentier, “A Programmable Dual-RNA-Guided DNA Endonuclease in Adaptive Bacterial Immunity”, Science, August 17, 2012, http://science.sciencemag.org/content/337/6096/816
[iii] Antonio Regalado, “Everything You Need to Know About CRISPR Gene Editing’s Monster Year”, MIT Technology Review, December 1, 2015, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/543941/everything-you-need-to-know-about-crispr-gene-editings-monster-year/
[iv] Sarah Zhang, “Everything You Need to Know About CRISPR, the New Tool that Edits DNA“, Gizmodo, May 06, 2015, http://gizmodo.com/everything-you-need-to-know-about-crispr-the-new-tool-1702114381
[v] The Economist, “Editing Humanity”, August 22, 2015, http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21661651-new-technique-manipulating-genes-holds-great-promisebut-rules-are-needed-govern-its
[vi] Sarah Buhr, “CRISPR loses Nobel to tiny machines”, Techcrunch, October 5, 2016, https://techcrunch.com/2016/10/05/crispr-loses-nobel-to-tiny-machines/
[vii] Antonio Regalado, “Top U.S. Intelligence Official Calls Gene Editing a WMD Threat”, MIT Technology Review, February 9, 2016, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/600774/top-us-intelligence-official-calls-gene-editing-a-wmd-threat/
[viii] The Economist, “Gene Drives – The most selfish genes”, August 22, 2015, http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21661801-giving-bits-dna-power-edit-themselves-intriguing-and-worrying-possibility
[ix] Science, “And Science´s 2015 Breakthrough of the Year is…”, December 17, 2015, http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2015/12/and-science-s-breakthrough-year
[xi] Paul Berg, “Meetings that changed the world: Asilomar 1975: DNA modification secured”, Nature, September 18, 2008, http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v455/n7211/full/455290a.html
[xii] Eric Niler, “Crispr Gene-Editing Gets Rules. Well, Guidelines, Really”, WIRED, April 12, 2015, https://www.wired.com/2015/12/crispr-gene-editors-get-the-beginning-of-some-rules/
[xiii] Vivek Wadhwa, “Why there’s an urgent need for a moratorium on gene editing”, The Washington Post, September 8, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/innovations/wp/2015/09/08/why-theres-an-urgent-need-for-a-moratorium-on-gene-editing/
[xiv] Daniel Gerstein, “Can the bioweapons convention survive Crispr?”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, July 25, 2016, http://thebulletin.org/can-bioweapons-convention-survive-crispr9679