DARPA developing security tools for gene editing
Thu 8 Sep 2016
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has announced that it is developing new protocols and tools to address the potential security aspects of gene-editing, which has become a more commonly-diffused technology since the launch of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editor in 2012.
The Safe Genes program – which is holding a proposers’ day at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington on September 30th – has three core objectives: to develop ‘genetic constructs’ that will provide ‘spatial, temporal, and reversible control of genome editors in living systems’; to develop molecular-level countermeasures and treatment options against negative effects of gene editing in populations; and, perhaps most extraordinary, a capability to ‘eliminate unwanted engineered genes from environments and restore systems to their genetic baseline state’.
The Safe Genes project has been prompted by the increased demand for gene drives in the wake of the precise gene-editing capabilities which the CRISPR-Cas9 editor brought to the field four years ago.
DARPA’s program director Renee Wegrzyn comments in the statement that at the present time responsible utilisers of gene-editing technology are constrained by unknown variables and immature control systems – with the implication that this is changing:
“DARPA wants to develop controls for gene editing and derivative technologies to support responsible research and defend against irresponsible actors who might intentionally or accidentally release modified organisms.”
Wegrzyn further commented: “DARPA is pursuing a suite of versatile tools that can be applied independently or in combination to support bio-innovation or combat bio-threats.”
Gene drives are intended to alter the genetic character of populations; though a long-established field of study, the increasing precision and democratisation of gene-editing technologies have clearly registered on the U.S.’s military radar.
In February James Clapper, U.S. director of national intelligence, characterised genome-editing as worthy of adding to the list of “weapons of mass destruction and proliferation”:
“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. 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.”