In the government’s annual report of national security threats, released Tuesday, a new entry made the list: genome-editing.
It might seem surprising to place genome-editing in the company of cyberattacks by China, the nuclear ambitions of North Korea, and new cruise missiles being deployed by Russia. But in his report to Congress, director of national intelligence James Clapper said genome-editing research “probably increases the risk of the creation of potentially harmful biological agents or products,” whose “deliberate or unintentional misuse might lead to far-reaching economic and national security implications.”
The report did not elaborate, and the Senate panel to whom Clapper testified about the report did not ask him to.
The worry is not entirely new. STAT reported last year that experts were raising biosecurity concerns about the genome-editing technology CRISPR. The FBI, the Pentagon, and the United Nations bioweapons office are all monitoring or studying one of the most powerful uses of CRISPR, called “gene drive,” because of fears that it could be a tool of mass destruction in the hands of bioterrorists.
Still, its presence in the national security report indicates a formal acknowledgement of the government’s level of concern. “I was surprised to see genome-editing singled out,” said Piers Millett, an expert on bioweapons policy at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. A meeting convened last September by the National Academy of Sciences, he said, concluded that a number of technologies “had reduced the technical barriers to acquiring and using bioweapons,” but that they still remained so difficult to develop that they “require state-level resources” and lie beyond the capabilities of lone wolves.
Nevertheless, said Millet, “I think [Clapper’s] comments were accurate” in describing the risks associated with genome-editing. He said the role of the scientific community in understanding and reducing the risks of their work “will be critical.”
Genome-editing, and in particular gene drive, are already on the radar of biosecurity experts. Using CRISPR, biologists have succeeded in creating gene drives that insure a tweaked gene is inherited by all of a genetically-engineered organism’s offspring and by all of the offspring’s offspring in subsequent generations. That could help eradicate killer diseases such as malaria and, some experts have recently suggested, Zika virus.
Clapper did not specify what use of genome-editing worries the intelligence community, but biosecurity scholars have already raised some possibilities.
A gene drive spreading DNA that kills pollinating insects, for instance, could cripple a country’s agriculture. A gene drive that lets insects carry and transmit killer diseases more effectively could create “superkiller mosquitoes,” something Dr. Amesh Adalja, a biosecurity and infectious diseases expert at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, was asked to testify about by a National Academy of Sciences panel last year. He called it “entomological warfare.”
The risk that genome editing could be put to nefarious uses is real enough that scientists are assessing what is and isn’t likely. Biologist Kevin Esvelt of MIT, who has championed scientific transparency about gene drive research, said he is “currently waiting for approval of work describing why gene drive elements make poor bioweapons.” And based on what’s known now, he added, “given the demonstrated technological competence of non-state actors with malicious intent to date, we don’t have anything to worry about for at least a few years.”
Updated Feb. 11, 8:20 a.m., with additional scientist comment.