US defence agencies grapple with gene drives
The JASONs, a group of elite scientists that advises the US government on national security, has weighed in on issues ranging from cyber security to renewing America’s nuclear arsenal. But at a meeting in June, the secretive group took stock of a new threat: gene drives, a genetic-engineering technology that can swiftly spread modifications through entire populations and could help vanquish malaria-spreading mosquitoes.
That meeting forms part of a broader US national security effort this year to grapple with the possible risks and benefits of a technology that could drive species extinct and alter whole ecosystems. On 19 July, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced US$65 million in funding to scientists studying gene-editing technologies; most of the money will be for work on gene drives. And a US intelligence counterpart to DARPA is planning to fund research into detecting organisms containing gene drives and other modifications.
“Every powerful technology is a national security issue,” says Kevin Esvelt, an evolutionary engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, who won DARPA funding to limit the spread of gene drives. Esvelt says he also attended last month’s JASON meeting in San Diego, California, where he outlined how would-be bioterrorists might weaponize gene drives. But he is far more concerned about the potential for accidental release of gene-drive organisms by scientists, he says. “Bio-error is what I’m worried about.”