By Mitchell Flagg
A European research team develops a tool that could wipe out a species. A superhero’s skin renders bullets useless. The Department of Defense prepares for a world where a careless hobbyist might unleash a WMD by complete accident. These seemingly disparate events all reflect the growing role of a technology called CRISPR in our world. Though prominent in scientific circles, this technology remains unknown to much of society despite having the potential to shake that society’s foundations. CRISPR has important ethical, military, and diplomatic implications, and the policy world needs to begin addressing these issues.
Before any discussion of its uses, the aforementioned technology needs to be defined. Out of necessity, I’m going to aggressively summarize decades of brilliant biological research in one paragraph, so I apologize in advance to any biologists reading this article. The proper name for the technology is CRISPR-Cas systems, shortened to CRISPR for convenience. CRISPR-Cas systems were originally discovered as a set of proteins that some bacteria use for precise targeting and editing of genetic code. This system enabled the bacteria to store pieces of viral DNA in their own genome, using that stored information to better detect and intercept that virus in the future. In recent years, biologists have learned to modify CRISPR-Cas systems. Researchers use these modified CRISPR-Cas systems to freely edit the genome in various ways, eliminating genes to study the effects of their absence, introducing genes from one species to another, and more. This is a powerful technology with a variety of applications, and some of those applications have begun working their way into popular culture.
CRISPR and Luke Cage come together in an important way, as the show relies on CRISPR as the source of Cage’s powers. A background character uses the technology to insert abalone shell genes into Cage’s skin cells, conferring his invulnerability. Despite occurring in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this isn’t as far from reality as one would think. In fact, two key ideas the show touches on, using CRISPR to modify patients’ genes and developing chimeras (genetic human-animal blends), are both already researched in many labs around the world. One group uses CRISPR to modify patients’ immune cells to better fight cancer. Another grows human organs inside of pigs with the aim of someday transplanting those organs into patients, hoping to address the problem of long transplant waitlists. Perhaps most controversially, some labs in China, Sweden, and the UK have already begun using CRISPR to modify human embryos. While current research on the subject focuses on addressing genetic birth defects, many have noted the possibility for engineering of specific traits in human embryos, an idea popularly referred to as “designer babies” and explored in the dystopian 1997 film Gattaca. This could have troubling ethical implications and will require close attention as the field develops, and it’s not the only species in which CRISPR raises questions.
To combat the spread of malaria, a research team from Imperial College, London and their collaborators have used CRISPR to introduce a “gene drive” that causes sterility in female mosquitos. Gene drives are synthetic genes designed to have a near-guarantee of being passed on to offspring, even if only one parent carries the gene. The thought process here is that mosquitos carrying the sterility gene drive could be introduced in areas with malaria epidemics, driving the local mosquito population virtually extinct. On the face of it, this sounds much lower-stakes than the editing of human biology. However, some have raised concerns about the larger implications of the work – what risks could arise in a world where humans can quickly, dramatically, and easily alter the genomic fabric of virtually any species? We could see the issue of GMO crosspollination writ large, modified organisms crossing national borders and causing ecological change. The legal issues grow thorny enough without considering vested interests and deliberate action; one could imagine, for example, a nation or agricultural company deploying CRISPR-edited plants, animals, or microbes to wreak havoc on an economic competitor.
This brings us to perhaps the most critical issue raised by CRISPR: biological warfare. It’s not hard to picture myriad ways that a terrorist group, lone radical, or rogue state might use CRISPR to engineer bioweapons. However, the rapid democratization of information access and biotechnology might make this an even greater danger than we think. Today’s researchers make use of many large, open public resources which contain ample volumes of detailed information about various pathogens, such as the HIV sequence database maintained by Los Alamos National Laboratory or the CDC’s Public Health Genomics Knowledge Base. The drawback to such resources is that their data is just as accessible to those who might misuse it as it is to well-intentioned biomedical scientists. As for the democratization of biotech, a large and growing community of “biohackers” use new biotech advances, including CRISPR, to pursue experiments out of personal interest and without institutional constraint or regulatory oversight. Despite its cutting-edge nature, CRISPR is astonishingly accessible, with a biohacker-affiliated company called the ODIN selling CRISPR kits for only $140. Many have raised the question of whether such tools could be dangerous, perhaps enabling easy engineering of bioweapons or increasing the risk of ecological accidents. The ODIN’s founder, Josiah Zayner, dismisses the issue as “not anything that should be worried [or] thought about”, but others are less certain. This past February, US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper included genome editing on a list of WMDs that also included nuclear and chemical weapons. DARPA, the research arm of the DoD, recently launched a program called Safe Genes to develop ways to control or reverse genome editing, develop countermeasures, and remediate environments harmfully affected by gene editing. The mere existence of Safe Genes speaks volumes as to the importance of the issue, as well as the need for more discussion in the international community.
At this point, it’s clear why the policy world needs to discuss CRISPR. The field of gene editing is rife with regulatory loopholes, and the international community has yet to implement, or even formulate, a collective agenda on how to handle CRISPR. As Daniel Gerstein of the RAND Corporation put it, the policy community “must seriously consider whether advances in biotechnology [like CRISPR] have made the existing bioweapons convention obsolete”. Genetically modified organisms already proliferate across the planet in areas like agriculture, manufacturing, and international aid, and application of a powerful tool like CRISPR hasn’t even fully propagated through the field. The technology’s already outrunning the policy; those policies need to catch up before an emergency strikes and alarmism drowns out rationality. Many lives are at stake here, both those endangered by gene editing run amok and those we might lose if panic and regionalism impede beneficial CRISPR use.
The word “disruptive” doesn’t mean much these days. Hordes of clamoring startups have beaten the word a few stages past dead horse, and according to The Guardian’s Leigh Alexander, we’re not even supposed to say it anymore (it’s presumably buried in the plot next to “revolutionize”). In this case, I think an exception is warranted. CRISPR isn’t some gee-whiz trickery being oversold for grant money and a nice IPO. It’s truly disruptive to paradigms in scientific and medical ethics, ecological stability, and national security. CRISPR is both a powerful tool for good and a source of serious risk – to paraphrase Marie Curie, it’s not to be feared, but to be understood. The international community at large needs that understanding. We have to sow the seeds responsibly if we want to minimize the consequences while reaping the benefits.
Image By MIKI Yoshihito