The list of potential WMDs now includes genome editing. In the annual worldwide threat assessment released Feb 9th, James Clapper, US director of national intelligence, listed genome editing after chemical weapons in Syria and nuclear missile programs in North Korea. As the report explains:
“Research in genome editing conducted by countries with different regulatory or ethical standards than those of Western countries probably increases the risk of the creation of potentially harmful biological agents or products. Given the broad distribution, low cost, and accelerated pace of development of this dual-use technology, its deliberate or unintentional misuse might lead to far-reaching economic and national security implications.”
Genome editing’s status as a WMD is in response to the development of CRISPR-Cas9 – a new technique that acts like a word processor for the genome. Scientists can use CRISPR-Cas9 to delete, insert, or alter genes with startling ease and accuracy. Its an exciting technology for a number of reasons, primarily because it could be the key to personalized medicine and the end to debilitating hereditary disease.
Consider hemophilia, an hereditary disorder that impairs blood clotting. For hemophiliacs, even minor injuries can bleed for days without healing. This disease is caused by a mutation in a single gene. Potentially, physicians could inject CRISPR-Cas9 into an affected patient, editing that gene and curing the disorder. Even better, as hemophilia is hereditary, the eggs or sperm of a hemophiliac could be edited, eliminating the chance of passing on the disorder to their children.
This type of editing — altering the genome of sperm, eggs, or embryos — is the most concerning because many believe it will lead to ‘designer babies’. If diseases can be edited out of the genome, blue eyes or high intelligence may be edited in – a disturbing future where the rich enjoy pristine genomes while the poor make due with what they’ve inherited.
But concerns don’t stop at the human genome. CRISPR-Cas9 makes it easier to create genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Cattle cloning factories in China could easily apply CRISPR-Cas9 to create genetically modified cattle with beefed-up muscle tone. Also, CRISPR is cheap – a kit can be purchase for $60. Low costs means do-it-yourself scientists can create their own homegrown GMOs, or maybe the world’s first genetic weapon.