“Safe genes” is what it’s called, and it’s a program for the responsible development of gene editing technologies funded with $65 million by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa). The grant will go to seven teams including top scientists such as CRISPR co-inventor Jennifer Doudna and synthetic biologist George Church. Finding reversible ways to control gene editing is a national security issue, in the event CRISPR falls into the wrong hands. But Darpa intends also to foster peaceful applications, by encouraging innovation and mitigating risks which might accidentally arise in civilian labs. Think of new CRISPR variants that can distinguish between highly similar genetic sequences, or molecular mechanisms to finely modulate the technology of gene drives, which is experimented to propagate modifications through entire populations.
The history of hi-tech bioweapons counts few attacks, no one really successful, and the scenario of precision biotechnologies being abused for nefarious goals is very unlikely but not impossible. What if a terrorist group or a despotic regime tries to spread modified organisms aimed at striking troops, frightening civilians, or putting food production in disarray? In June some 20 scientists from the defense advisory group Jason have discussed gene drives and their security implications at a closed-door meeting that could lead to a classified report, says Nature. Few weeks before Foreign Affairs speculated about Isis messing around with biotech tools but failed short of providing any element supporting this hypothesis. Even if CRISPR is cheap and easy in comparison with alternative technologies, engineering gene drives to propagate genes is quite difficult. A van driven into a crowd may suffice to sow death and fear, news bulletins have proven.
Fire is a dual use technology, as it can be used for both peaceful and military aims, and so are gene drives, which are being developed with the noble purpose of defeating malaria. Making this technology safer is a good idea anyway, regardless of bioterrorism fears. Darpa will fund confined experiments on model organisms such as nematodes and yeast, but also mosquitoes and rodents. Goals include the development of new anti-CRISPR proteins capable of stopping genome editing when needed, and the creation of modular “daisy drives”, which are self-exhausting because they sequentially lose genetic elements just like petals picked off a flower. The project also supports the development of gene editing tools to be employed as antiviral agents against zika and ebola viruses. But there is no such thing as a free lunch, the adage says, and the price to pay for the military money could be raising suspicions on the real intentions of researchers involved in the anti-malaria effort and other applications useful for developing countries.