Genetic modification using new technologies like CRISPR has been called a “weapon of mass destruction and proliferation” by James Clapper, U.S. Director of National Intelligence, in his annual Worldwide Threat Assessment report.
Gene editing is the latest brainchild of the biotechnology industry. It has been touted as entirely different from gene insertion, the genetic modification technique used over the past several decades to create GM crops and GM animals. Gene editing technology alters the DNA inside living cells. The biotech industry says it is an easy and cheap way to mess with Mother Nature – but, as with other GM technology, the outcomes can’t be precisely controlled.
The rapid development of gene editing is due to tools like CRISPR/Cas-9, an injectable protein. It can locate a specific DNA strand in a person’s genome, delete it, and replace it with a new DNA sequence designed by genetic engineers. That’s quite a powerful technology that could be misused in the wrong hands.
Many scientists herald genome editing (‘germline editing’) as a way to correct conditions like Huntington’s disease or muscular dystrophy by changing the DNA in sperm, eggs or embryos. But others fear this is just a tactic to create “armies of blue-eyed super-intelligent babies.”
Genome editing’s relative ease of implementation worries the U.S. intelligence community, according to the threat assessment report. It states:
“Given the broad distribution, low cost, and accelerated pace of development of this dual-use technology, its deliberate or unintentional misuse might lead to far-reaching economic and national security implications.”
Naming gene editing as a potential weapon of mass destruction, or WMD, surprised Piers Millet, a bioweapons expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. Making bioweapons generally requires skill in a “wide raft of technologies.” Also, gene editing was the only biotechnology noted in a tally of six otherwise conventional threats, such as North Korea’s suspected nuclear detonation on January 6 or China’s modernization of its nuclear weapons.
Clapper oversees national intelligence and spying agencies with combined budgets of over $50 billion. His insights in the report reflect data from the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and half a dozen other U.S. spy and fact-gathering operations.
His report doesn’t mention CRISPR by name, but Clapper clearly had this newest and most versatile of the gene-editing systems in mind. The CRISPR technique’s relative ease of use and its low cost—the basic ingredients can be bought online for $60—seems to have spooked intelligence agencies. The report continues:
“Research in genome editing conducted by countries with different regulatory or ethical standards than those of Western countries probably increases the risk of the creation of potentially harmful biological agents or products.”
Indeed; and as the case is with many technologies, it can be used for good or for evil.
The report noted that new discoveries “move easily in the globalized economy, as do personnel with the scientific expertise to design and use them.”
A gene could be edited to contain a self-destruct virus, for example, or to help eradicate disease. The possibilities are endless, but that’s also why genome editing is so dangerous.
Daniel Gerstein, senior policy analyst at RAND and former undersecretary at the Dept. of Homeland Security, seems to call out the very industry that many in the U.S. government seemed at one time hell-bent on supporting:
“Biotechnology, more than any other domain, has great potential for human good, but also has the possibility to be misused. We are worried about people developing some sort of pathogen with robust capabilities, but we are also concerned about the chance of misutilization. We could have an accident occur with gene editing that is catastrophic, since the genome is the very essence of life.”
Considering that many scientists have been bought by companies like Monsanto, Dow and Syngenta already, it isn’t a far stretch to imagine that this technology could be used for ill-intentioned purposes.
The intelligence assessment also drew specific attention to the possibility of using CRISPR to edit the DNA of human embryos to produce genetic changes in the next generation of people—to remove disease risks, e.g. Mankind’s history, however, shows a tendency toward ethnic cleansing. CRISPR could be used to single out genes that are perfectly fine, but not ‘desirable’ by a ruling authority.
Considering the Serbian campaign to cleanse the world of certain ethnic tribes, the Nazis’ attempt to exterminate the Jews and Romani, and the white settlers in the Americas killing hundreds of thousands of Indians, we can be certain that genome editing must be guarded by a morally upright set of laws. Just because we CAN use certain technologies–like nuclear weapons–doesn’t mean we SHOULD use them. The naming of genome editing as a weapon of mass destruction seems apropos enough.
Just what Clapper and other security heads plan to do about it is another question entirely. Just as there are hackers for Internet technologies, there are scientists who will know how to edit genes, without regulatory approval. This is perhaps the most alarming aspect of the situation, aside from naming the technology for what it is – a WMD.