DARPA is reportedly investing $100 million in this “gene drive” technology, claiming that it will be used to eradicate destructive pests like malaria mosquitoes and invasive rodents. Though The Guardian rightly points out that this technology could be the “stuff of nightmares,” all known current scientific research is supposedly only aimed at pest control.
It is important to note, though, that the only information that has come to light about DARPA’s plans was revealed in emails released under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) rules. It is entirely possible that far more is involved in the program than has been revealed by the government.
Cutting edge technology like Crispr-Cas9 can be used to slice into DNA strands, and then either insert, change or remove specific genetic traits. If, for example, scientists were to alter the sex-ratio of certain mosquitoes in this way, it would be a simple matter to eradicate them completely. (Related: CRISPR gene editing found to cause hundreds of “unintended mutations,” warn scientists.)
The problem with this technology is two-fold: Firstly, scientists have no way of knowing what the ecological effects would be of eradicating entire species. Experts have warned that this type of human interference could threaten peace, food security and entire ecosystems. (Related: Discover the extent of the damage humans have already caused to our planet at Environ.news.)
One United Nations (U.N.) source told The Guardian, “You may be able to remove viruses or the entire mosquito population, but that may also have downstream ecological effects on species that depend on them. My main worry is that we do something irreversible to the environment, despite our good intentions, before we fully appreciate the way that this technology will work.”
Friends of the Earth reported last year that scientists, conservationists and environmental groups had unanimously rejected the use of gene drive technology to cause the extinction of targeted species:
Members of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), including NGOs, government representatives, and scientific and academic institutions, overwhelmingly voted to adopt a de facto moratorium on supporting or endorsing research into gene drives for conservation or other purposes until the IUCN has fully assessed their impacts.
The second, and probably most alarming concern is that “rogue” nations might use this type of technology as a bio-weapon. While the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is currently discussing what restrictions, if any, should be placed on the use of this type of technology, it stands to reason that countries like North Korea, which do not respect the authority of the U.N., are highly unlikely to abide by any restrictions it might decide upon. As it is, sanctions the U.N. has already placed on that country are being belligerently and completely ignored by those in positions of power.
The fact that the technology is being developed by a military agency has raised concerns around the globe. As one U.N. diplomat said, “Many countries [will] have concerns when this technology comes from Darpa, a U.S. military science agency.”
Experts have also expressed concerns that any scientists who receive grants to work on this type of technology are now likely to change their projects to be narrowly focused on meeting the aims of the military, rather than a broader type of scientific research.
Canada’s Global Research Centre notes that interest in the development of gene drive technology for military use increased dramatically after the release of a report by an elite group of scientists known as “Jason” last year. A second report was commissioned this year to examine “potential threats this technology might pose in the hands of an adversary, technical obstacles that must be overcome to develop gene drive technology and employ it ‘in the wild’,” according to Gerald Joyce, the report’s co-chair.
The U.S. military – especially DARPA – has already spent an obscene amount of money on the development of synthetic biology, with sources estimating this to be in the region of $820 million between 2008 and 2014, alone.
DARPA claims that it needs to get ahead of the curve, with the potential threat of gene drive technology being utilized by a country not friendly to U.S. interests increasing since the costs associated with gene-editing toolkits have seen dramatic reductions.
“This convergence of low cost and high availability means that applications for gene editing – both positive and negative – could arise from people or states operating outside of the traditional scientific community and international norms,” a DARPA official said. “It is incumbent on Darpa to perform this research and develop technologies that can protect against accidental and intentional misuse.”
One thing is for sure: The government is playing a dangerous game – one for which future generations may have to pay the price.