JAN 29, 2016
Gene Wars: Targeted Mutations Will Spawn Unique Dangers, And Soon
Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.
In 2012, scientists discovered a cheap and easy way of editing genes that determine the biological features of all living things, including humans. The method is called Crispr-Cas9, and it exploits the defenses that bacteria have evolved against viral invaders to add or subtract material from an organism’s genome. Depending on how this “editing” is done, it can permanently alter the genetic endowment of later generations. A related development called a “gene drive” bypasses the normal process of inheritance so that newly introduced traits can be quickly propagated through entire species if they reproduce rapidly.
For instance, a “germline” (heritable) mutation that leads to infertility might cause an entire species of mosquito to become extinct in a single season. Nicholas Wade of the New York Timesreports that biologists have taken to referring to this type of genetic manipulation as a “crash drive.” It is a bad sign that scientists think they need a term for genetically-induced extinction, because it indicates such outcomes have become a real possibility – whether through deliberate action or by accident. So far, all of the interesting applications of Crispr-Cas9 have occurred in labs, but the technology is spreading so fast that it is just a matter of time before some of these mutations escape into the wild.
Scientists from the U.S., Britain and China were sufficiently worried about the potentially adverse effects of the new technology to convene a conference in Washington last month that explored how Crispr-Cas9 might be regulated or restrained before it falls into the wrong hands. But it is already too late. A thousand scientific papers have been published detailing how the new approach to gene editing can be used, and the necessary materials are readily available to any postdoc in biology. The items that are not already in their labs can be ordered by mail for less money than you will probably spend at Starbucks SBUX +1.67%this month.
Some writers have referred to this as the “democratization” of gene editing since manipulation of genetic material will no longer be confined to those with deep pockets and academic connections. The next few years will undoubtedly see numerous breakthroughs as Crispr-Cas9 is employed to combat genetically-based disorders and enhance the traits of everything from food crops to laboratory rats. But the technology is so far-reaching that it could change the entire biological landscape during the next two decades, in totally unpredictable ways. Entire species could disappear, producing ripple effects across the ecosystem. Other species could see fundamental features of their genome transformed forever — including humans.
Joe Palca of National Public Radio reassured his audience in a December 28 feature that, revolutionary though the new technology may be, “most biologists aren’t interested in making designer babies or mutant species.” However, as that formulation implies, some are. History tells us that new technologies, even those as simple as barbed wire, often turn out to have unforeseen consequences. Remember all the utopian predictions about how the World Wide Web was going to transform commerce and culture in the early days after it was invented? Well it certainly managed to do that, as any Chinese hacker or ISIS recruiter will tell you.
The same will be true of Crispr-Cas9, which is spreading through the scientific community even faster than the Internet took root a generation ago. Scientists in China have already applied the technology to human embryos. Jennifer Doudna of U.C. Berkeley, one of the pioneers in the field, maintains an ever-growing list of the creatures whose genes have been altered using the new methods. Nature magazine reports Doudna was unsettled two years after her initial discoveries when she attended a scientific conclave at which a postdoc related how a virus had been engineered to alter mice for the study of lung cancer that might unwittingly have worked just as well in humans.
The point being that when so many people are working with the same technology, many of them in labs that previously had little need to worry about genetically-modified organisms escaping into the wild, it is just a matter of time before human-induced mutations begin appearing in the global ecosystem. The ecosystem is relatively resilient, but as our experience with invasive species such as kudzu demonstrates, it can be upset when genuinely new organisms appear (or old ones disappear). Unfortunately, a commenter on the arstechnica web-site probably got it right in observing that “there’s no kill switch” for reversing such impacts once an organism is introduced or removed.
And then there is the larger issue of deliberately induced changes aimed at achieving upset in the global balance of economic or political power. Anybody who has seen one of the slick propaganda videos produced by ISIS has to wonder what other technical skills its sympathizers might possess. You don’t need a lot of sophistication to engineer something highly virulent like the influenza strain that killed 50 million people in 1918 if you understand the new technology. Even well-intentioned initiatives like trying to engineer genetically-based diseases out of the human genome could have unforeseen consequences if they permanently alter the”germline” of later generations.
It appears that almost nobody in Washington, certainly not in the national security community, is paying attention to such possibilities. Scientists are excited by all the possibilities for treating diseases and enhancing traits that Crispr-Cas9 might enable, and Big Pharma has begun to invest in start-ups as it focuses on the potential for profits, but the nation’s policymakers seem oblivious to the downside that inevitably will accompany this explosion in gene editing. The scientists who met in December to discuss limits on research were on the right track, but this isn’t like earlier efforts at voluntary restraint in genetic manipulation, because the new technology is just too easy to use. Washington needs to start paying closer attention.
(I am indebted to Gregory Dahlberg of Dahlberg Strategic LLC in Washington, who encouraged me to look into the implications of Crispr-Cas9 technology. He is not responsible for any of the conclusions I have drawn.)