The FBI Is Worried About Bioterrorists Using Genetic Engineering as a Weapon of Mass Destruction

Friday, 20 November 2015 - 1:18PM
Genetic Engineering
Friday, 20 November 2015 - 1:18PM
The FBI Is Worried About Bioterrorists Using Genetic Engineering as a Weapon of Mass Destruction
Could genetic engineering be the next weapon of mass destruction? With gene editing techniques becoming easier and cheaper every day, the applications are becoming endless, for better and for worse. Now, the FBI is concerned that gene editing tools like CRISPR could be used to modify the genes of populations en masse, possibly creating a dangerous bioweapon.

Yesterday, a special agent from the FBI had a meeting with biology researchers in Washington, D.C. to discuss "gene drives," or the practice of proliferating a certain gene throughout populations at a rapid speed, usually in insect populations. Gene drives involve replacing a specific gene with another gene, along with a genetic mechanism for copying the gene many times in the genome, virtually ensuring that it will be passed onto the offspring.

Until the advent of CRISPR, there was no gene editing tool that could hone in on specific genes, and gene drives were purely hypothetical. But last year, Harvard researchers demonstrated that they could used CRISPR engineer yeast to pass on a gene to 99% of their offspring (as opposed to the naturally occurring 50%), and UC San Diego researchers achieved a 97% inheritance rate in fruit flies, demonstrating that the technique is effective in more complex organisms.

Gene drives have been proposed for benevolent purposes, such as making mosquitos resistant to malaria in order to end the epidemic in humans, it could theoretically also be used to quickly proliferate a deadly bioweapon. By engineering a few rapidly reproducing insects, like mosquitos, with a gene for producing a toxin and arming them with a gene drive, the disease would soon spread across the mosquito population, and they would, in turn, infect humans with the poison. 

The risk is not necessarily imminent, as we don't understand mosquitos' biology well enough yet to create a gene drive for them, and so far the gene drives have been shown to work only for one generation, which means the toxin would dissipate rather quickly as natural mutations destroy the copying mechanism. But it's enough of a risk that the FBI is worried, and there may be need for immediate regulation. This meeting was the last of six organized by the US's National Academy of Sciences which have involved organizations like the UN's bioweapons office, and a full report is expected in spring of next year.

Opening quote
"If anyone messes up and a gene drive gets out into the wild, there will be a huge media circus," Harvard researcher Kevin Esvelt, who developed the first gene drive in yeast, told Nature. "The message will be that scientists cannot be trusted to deal with this technology, and we will be set back by years."
Closing quote

Via Quartz.
Science
Science News
Genetic Engineering

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