Media reports about the gene-editing technique called CRISPR-Cas9 have generated some doomsday scenarios that the technology would be used, as Wired magazine wrote, to create “designer babies, invasive mutants, species-specific bioweapons, and a dozen other apocalyptic sci-fi tropes.”
So hearing the term “do-it-yourself CRISPR” might really conjure up visions of biohackers creating new disease-causing organisms that escape into the environment and kick off pandemics.
Rest easy. The do-it-yourself community has codes of conduct in place to guide responsible use of CRISPR, and it has been more proactive about discussing this technology than the federal government, wrote Todd Kuiken, a senior program associate at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., in a commentary published last week in Nature.
Community norms won’t much influence rogue biohackers intent on causing harm. “But such people could just as easily be scientists working in government, university or commercial labs as DIY biologists,” Kuiken wrote.
“Indeed, the current culture of responsibility among DIY biologists, their collaborative style of working and the fact that community labs are open spaces in which everyone can see what is going on reduce, if not eliminate, doomsday scenarios of mutant organisms escaping from basements and causing harm.”
Here’s what several other experts had to say about do-it-yourself CRISPR.
Ellen Jorgensen: DIY community can do interesting, useful, perfectly respectable things with CRISPR
Gigi Kwik Gronvall: Safety systems need improving in all labs
Filippa Lentzos: Don’t single out the DIY community
Henry Greely: Take care!
DIY community can do interesting, useful, perfectly respectable things with CRISPR
By Ellen Jorgensen: The media attention that has been lavished on CRISPR-Cas9 has sparked growing interest in learning about this technology among the do-it-yourself science community.
Genspace, a community lab in Brooklyn, New York that I cofounded and currently direct, has recently been inundated with requests for hands-on CRISPR training. Two hours after we announced our first “Introduction to CRISPR” workshop, it was sold out. We have since scheduled several more, and are planning a full 16-hour laboratory course over four weekends in April. All classes include a segment discussing the ethics, politics and ramifications of this new and powerful technology.
What sorts of things might our community, which includes people from all walks of life, want to do with CRISPR? Artists who “paint” with bacteria could use it to increase the palette of stably-expressed bacterial colors they have to work with. Bioentrepreneurs interested in producing new biomaterials in bacteria or yeast could use CRISPR as an efficient tool to produce stable strains expressing polymers, pigments, fragrances, and other interesting products. These are goals that can be achieved by using more traditional methods of genetic engineering, but CRISPR-Cas9 can shorten the timeline considerably.
Genspace and other community labs do not have the facilities to do germline editing, nor do we have the inclination to do it, a fact often overlooked in media reports.
There are many interesting, useful, and perfectly respectable things the do-it-yourself community could do with CRISPR. Making it part of the DIY arsenal of tools isn’t an alarming development. Instead, it’s another alternative to engineering genomes in laboratory organisms that the DIY community has been safely working with for many years.
Ellen Jorgensen, PhD, is the cofounder and executive director of Genspace.
Safety systems need improving in all labs
By Gigi Kwik Gronvall: It’s inevitable that the gene-editing technique known as CRISPR-Cas9 will get in the hands of do-it-yourself biologists, and all biologists for that matter. This incredibly useful tool joins others that make it easier to manipulate biological systems. DIY biologists are not likely to push the envelope with this technology, since community laboratories operate at the lowest levels of containment, meaning that they work with weak strains of bacteria, not infectious diseases. Even so, they are promoting a love of science and engineering and pursuing projects that might someday be useful.
Nonetheless, the concerns about the safety of CRISPR are real, even though they are absolutely not limited to the DIY biology community. Recent newsworthy events of safety problems — the CDC shipping flu strains where they shouldn’t have gone and improperly inactivating anthrax; the FDA finding smallpox which should have been long ago destroyed; and Dugway shipping incompletely inactivated anthrax all over the country — make it clear that safety systems are not where they should be in premier laboratories in the United States, never mind elsewhere in the world. This has to change.
For one thing, we need to bring biosafety to where the science is. The Nature article mentioned the “Ask a biosafety expert” program, which has been funded through private foundations, especially the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. This creative program, and others that promote biosafety knowledge and training, should be supported by the US government.
Studies must be done on ways to make labs and laboratory procedures safer — including how to promote a culture of safety. This applies to community labs, but is even more important for university, private, and governmental labs.
We also need to think about the international scene. The United States can bar certain types of science, but they will likely be done elsewhere in the world, and maybe not as safely. The best approach we can take is to thoughtfully develop the safety systems and governance we would like to see for CRISPR-Cas9 — or other technologies — in community DIY, academic, and government labs.
The United States is a powerhouse in biotechnology and stands to gain from the advances we make using it. But we can also be a leader in guiding the use of existing and breakthrough biotechnologies here and around the world.
Gigi Kwik Gronvall, PhD, is an associate professor of medicine and senior associate in the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Health Security.
Don’t single out the DIY community
By Filippa Lentzos: The do-it-yourself biology community has been proactive about developing and fostering a culture of responsibility. It should not be singled out as being worse than anyone else with regard to the use of gene-editing technologies.
In general, DIY bio is not particularly sophisticated. The likelihood is very low that people with no specialist training operating outside professional scientific institutions can genetically engineer organisms capable of harming people or the planet.
The same can be said for terrorist groups. Few — if any — such groups have the knowledge or scientific resources to create biological weapons. The number of attempts by terrorists to acquire and use these types of weapons is exceptionally small compared to the overall number of attacks that terrorists have conducted. Terrorists tend to be conservative and use weapons that are readily available and have a proven track record, not something like biological weapons that are more difficult to develop and deploy. While there is a risk of crude bioterrorism attacks, the likelihood that scientific advances will be used to enhance these attacks is very low.
What I worry more about is the potential for state or state-supported use of biological weapons. While the norm against biological weapons is strong, and the potential for state use is low, we cannot assume that biological weapons won’t be used in the future. This is coupled with an erosion of technological barriers to acquire and use bioweapons. CRISPR could be used as a means to create and deploy new and sophisticated biological weapons for new types of warfare.
The life science community plays a crucial role in strengthening the red line against the misuse of biology. Fostering responsible science rests on individual life scientists and the systems and safeguards where they work; and on an awareness of dual-use problems and structures to encourage responsible behavior.
Filippa Lentzos, PhD, an expert in biosecurity, is a senior research fellow at King’s College London.
Henry T. Greely: CRISPR is revolutionizing genetics. It is not the first form of genome editing, but it has made editing enormously faster, cheaper, easier, and more accurate. A great deal of attention has been paid to the use of CRISPR in humans but this use is heavily regulated, in part because we care so much about human safety. Using CRISPR in non-human organisms will be much easier, both legally and practically, but no less worrisome.
In theory, anyone can use CRISPR to modify the genes of any living organism. Using a CRISPR “add on” called gene drive, an individual could then force the new versions of the genes into all the descendants of any sexually reproducing organism. (For life forms that reproduce clonally, like most microbes, gene drive wouldn’t be necessary.) Someone could, with luck, change the genome of a huge population of mosquitoes, or weeds, in a very short time.
This could be good — think about preventing Zika or malarial infections. It could also be bad — think about creating epidemics of pathogenic E. coli bacteria. That means we need to carefully approach the use of CRISPR. Universities, research institutes, and big corporations are relatively easy to find and regulate. Finding and regulating do-it-yourself users is much harder and, under our current system, impossible. We urgently need to find a balanced regulatory approach that allows responsible do-it-yourself use while protecting health and the environment. There is no time to lose!
Henry T. Greely, JD, directs the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University.