Dr. Todd Kuiken published a hard-hitting article on some new programs being undertaken by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA (1). These efforts involve utilizing breakthroughs in genetic engineering and synthetic biology to foster advances in practical applications. As is often the case with DARPA work, some of the products promise to be amazing. It is also fair to maintain that the new capacities could end up literally changing our world. Scientists will create self-replicating gene drives that might alter entire wild ecosystems or perfect new ways to induce insects to perform useful tasks. Dr. Kuiken opens his essay with a question; are we comfortable with all this?
These projects may yield tremendous benefits and it seems important to have a capacity to defend against future weapons that come about as a consequence of the emerging technologies. However, there are some risks. One is that it is hard to separate work with a purely defensive purpose from research that might be used to develop weapons. With the military funding and directing the programs it seems unlikely other nations will be reassured the U.S. has strictly benign intentions. At the moment we seem to be heading toward a syn bio arms race by rushing to create countermeasures to weapons that do not yet exist.
Gene drive technology has also attracted significant DARPA interest. Seeking to create reliable drives to modify the environment or thwart malfunctioning/nefarious tools, this work will provide a strong boost to those wishing to re-write ecosystem genetics. The benefits of capacities such as genetically manipulating mosquito populations to halt disease transmission are obvious, but the risks of unanticipated consequences are essentially unknown (2). However, if it proves possible to reverse gene drive manipulations or simply extrapolate any successes into broad assertions this can probably be achieved elsewhere, it may become easier to reassure the public new projects should go forward. Might DARPA funding encourage gene drive researchers to reorient their focus to serve military objectives? There is no way of knowing, but some groups do seem determined to use this remarkable technology (Stalking Horse).
Faced with furiously-developing biotechnologies such as CRISPR-Cas9 gene manipulation and synthetic biology advances, the scientific community has been forced to address ethical concerns and outline mechanisms for their judicious use (2, 3). As issues come to the fore, a common action is for scientists to issue a call for public dialog (3). Far easier said than done, but today it is becoming even harder to ensure ordinary citizens can make their voices heard. While the scientific community is calling for discussions, DARPA has already made some key decisions as to what technologies will be pursued and how the work will be done.
The issues of CRISPR-Cas9 gene manipulation and other advances may be new, but the problems of deploying novel technologies and dual-use research have been producing intense controversy in the scientific community for many decades (4). More recently worries over publishing sensitive information that could be exploited by terrorists (5), the wisdom of resurrecting the 1918 killer influenza virus (6) and see-saw battles over pathogen gain-of-function research (7) have not reassured the public the experts have matters well in hand. Will these DARPA programs, the ones the public knows about and any others, be conducted safely? What are the risks/benefits of these programs and how were they assessed? The larger scientific community has not reached consensus on the matters involving the use of the new technologies, which experts did DARPA call on to help them decide how to proceed? How many of them had direct conflicts of interest?
DARPA managers understand the potential of the new biotechnologies. They should also be aware of the how new advances are adopted and used by the scientific community has sometimes had a charged history. It appears we in the civilian world can discuss, debate and plan as we like. DARPA has already decided part of the future for us.
(1) T. Kuiken. 2017. DARPA’s Synthetic Biology Initiatives Could Militarize the Environment. Slate, 3 May 2017. http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2017/05/what_happens_if_darpa_uses_synthetic_biology_to_manipulate_mother_nature.html
(2) H. Ledford. 2016. Fast-Spreading Genetic Mutations Pose Ecological Risk. Nature, 8 June 2016. http://www.nature.com/news/fast-spreading-genetic-mutations-pose-ecological-risk-1.20053
(3) D. Baltimore et al. 2015. A prudent path forward for genomic engineering and germline gene modification. Science 348:36-38. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/348/6230/36.full
(4) P. Berg. 2008. Asilomar 1975: DNA Modification Secured. Nature 455:290-291. https://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v455/n7211/full/455290a.html
(5) E. Check. 2003. U. S. officials urge biologists to vet publications for bioterror risk. Nature 16 January 2003. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v421/n6920/full/421197a.html
(6) P. A. Sharp. 2005. 1918 flu and responsible science. Science 310:17. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/310/5745/17.full?sid=d662f718-edeb-4878-92b2-ca00344405ef
(7) B. Maher. 2012. Bias accusation rattles U. S. biosecurity board. Nature 14 April 2012. http://www.nature.com/news/bias-accusation-rattles-us-biosecurity-board-1.10454