The Dark Side of CRISPR

By Kathryn Ziden

The Tsarnaev brothers, who carried out the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, built their pressure cooker bombs using instructions found in al Qaeda’s English-language, online magazine Inspire. In the same 2010 issue of Inspire, it states, “For those mujahid brothers with degrees in microbiology or chemistry lays the greatest opportunity and responsibility. For such brothers, we encourage them to develop a weapon of mass destruction.” Although the bombs that were detonated and discovered in New York and New Jersey this past weekend were also pressure cooker bombs, what if it had been a bio-engineered, deadly pathogen? New, inexpensive and readily available gene-editing techniques could provide an easy way for terrorists to stage bioterrorist attacks.

CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a novel gene-editing technique that has the potential to do everything from ending diseases like cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy to curing cancer. CRISPR also has the power to both bring back extinct species and cause living species to go extinct. There is hot debate currently within the scientific and policy communities about the ethical ramifications of this powerful tool and how it should be regulated. However, there is almost no discussion within these communities of the security risks that CRISPR poses, or the scary scenarios that could result from unintended consequences or its misuse.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s “Worldwide Threat Assessment” listed gene-editing techniques like CRISPR on its list of weapons of mass destruction for the first time in 2016. Here, we list some actors that could use CRISPR to create a bioweapon.

Non-state actors: Terrorism specialists have warned that obtaining a biological weapon is much easier than obtaining a nuclear or chemical weapon, given the relative ease by which components can be purchased and developed. Terror groups intent on developing biological weapons could use existing members’ skills, or send recruits to receive adequate education in the biological sciences, similar to al Qaeda’s method of sending attackers to train in U.S. flight schools prior to 9/11.

Rogue scientists: Disgruntled or mentally ill scientists could easily use CRISPR to mount an attack, similar to the 2001 anthrax attacks. However, unlike other deadly pathogens, CRISPR is widely available and requires no security clearance or mental health screening for access.

Do-it-yourself biohackers: Do-it-yourself (DIY) scientist movements are growing across the country. DIY centers now offer CRISPR-specific classes and DIY CRISPR kits are inexpensive and widely available for sale online for amateur scientists working out of their basements. Some websites sell in vivo, injection-ready CRISPR kits for creating transgenic rats (rats included), and directly advertise to “full service” and “DIY” users.

Religious groups: The first and single largest bioterrorist attack in the U.S. was perpetrated by followers of an Indian mystical leader, infecting 751 people with salmonella bacteria in 1984. In 1993, the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo attempted an anthrax attack in Tokyo, but mistakenly used a non-virulent strain.

Foreign governments: The development of bioweapons is banned under the 1975 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention; however many countries, including China, Russia and Pakistan are widely believed to have bioweapons programs. Each of these countries are also actively using CRISPR in scientific research.

The large, potential impacts of gene-editing techniques combined with the low barriers to obtaining the technology make it ripe for unintended and intended misuse. In order to address the security challenges of this emerging technology, all stakeholders need to act.

The scientific community can add value by:

  • Shifting their focus from ethical concerns to security concerns, or at least give security concerns equal footing in their discussions.
  • Engaging with the intelligence and policy communities to identify real-world scenarios that could be actualized by the actors discussed above.

Regulatory bodies can counter the risks poses by the unintended use or potential misuse of gene-editing techniques by:

  • Designating all precision gene-editing enzyme systems as controlled substances, similar to radioactive isotopes or illicit drug precursors used in research laboratories, and putting use-verification and accounting procedures into place.
  • Registering, licensing and certifying all laboratory-based and DIY users of CRISPR. Gene-editing technology users could also be required to undergo National Agency Check with Inquiries background investigations.

The intelligence community can lead the efforts of countering more serious, bioterrorism threats by:

  • Tracking all gene-editing kits or other system-specific plasmids or components, including materials already purchased during the current pre-regulation timeframe.
  • Tracking all users of gene-editing technologies, specifically looking for rogue or DIY users who fail to register, individuals actively seeking to buy kits through the black market, or individuals searching for CRISPR instructions or other relevant information online.

These recommendations are just some of the actions that could be taken to minimize risks of gene-editing technologies. CRISPR is a powerful technology that is capable of creating a gene drive that can result in mass sterilization and extinction. If it can be used to kill off a species of mosquito, then it can be used to kill off the human race. It is time to think of these gene-editing techniques in terms of an existential threat.

The Power of Imagination

By Charles Mueller

Sunday was an emotional day.  It was the 15th anniversary of one of the most traumatic days in US history, the anniversary of 9/11.  That day is burned into the memories of the American people because its events defied what we believed was possible.  We will never forget because we will always remember the day the unthinkable became reality.

The official story that came out of the investigations of 9/11 to explain how it was able to occur highlighted a failure to imagine the kinds of horrors terrorists could unleash upon our nation.  In some ways this finding was ironic because it was our imagination that helped us land on the moon, invent the Internet, and harness the atom, all accomplishments in our climb to become the world’s only remaining superpower at the time.  On 9/11 though it somehow became our weakness.  By failing to take serious what might seem impossible, by failing to imagine the extremes people might go to hurt us, we created an opportunity that could be exploited.  The sad reality of that day is that many people saw the signs of what was coming, but we still chose to ignore it; we chose to refrain from imagining it could ever take place.

That day showed the real the power of imagination.  If you can imagine it, you can often make it real.  The terrorists imagined all that took place on 9/11 and because they believed, were able to inflict a wound on this country that may never fully heal.  As we move forward, continuing to recover from that day, we must never forget this lesson; we must never forget the power of imagination.

Today we live at a time where what was once the imagination of science fiction writers is now becoming reality.  We are on the cusp of being able to engineer all types of life, including ourselves, to have the traits and properties we desire.  We are on the verge of potentially creating sentient life fundamentally different than our own.  We have tools today that are enabling our imagination to translate into reality.  As amazing as the future can be, days like 9/11 remind us that there exist those that will ultimately try to use these new technologies and their imaginations to make the future worse.  We have to remember this as we start thinking about how to manage this brave new world.

In order to ensure the future is better than tomorrow, we have to use our imagination to consider all the different ways it can go right and wrong.  We have to imagine the future we want and then work together to figure out the right path to get there.  We cannot afford another failure of imagination moving forward because S&T has simply made the stakes too high.  Let’s use the power of imagination to create a better world and ensure 9/11 is a day we remember, not relive.

Genetically Engineering Animals Modifies Nature, But That’s Nothing New

By TJ Kasperbauer

Some people want to use genetic modification to restore the American chestnut tree and the black-footed ferret. Some people couldn’t care less. Still others might think chestnut trees are ugly and ferrets are a nuisance. Choosing between these preferences is difficult. But whichever course of action we take, it won’t help to ask if we are conserving pristine nature. Instead, we must accept that we are merely modifying nature—as we have many times before.

Thinking about conservation as modifying nature conflicts with the dominant paradigm of nature preservation. Nature is to be protected, not redesigned. But this view of nature is misguided. We have always influenced nature, even if unintentionally and haphazardly. Genetic modification is only the most recent step in our long history of altering nature.

Many conservationists already accept this view of nature. For instance, some endangered and highly valued species have been relocated in order to improve their chances of survival. Doing so changes the species as well as the surrounding ecosystem—nature is changed. Captive breeding programs also frequently aim to modify the genetic makeup of the species before release. These practices also operate under the assumption that we are constantly changing nature.

Starting these discussions now helps prepare us for policy decisions we will inevitably face in the future. These decisions will be less and less about conservation and more about what we ultimately value and desire. This is difficult because there is such widespread disagreement, as illustrated by recent proposals to relocate pikas, white bark pine, and many others.

Just last week the International Union for Conservation of Nature proposed a temporary cessation of field trials and research on genetically modifying nonhuman organisms for conservation. Until the consequences have been properly assessed, they reason, such interventions are too dangerous. This conclusion is sensible—we do need more data. But the data will be quickly forthcoming, and the traditional conservation framework will not be very helpful. We must remember the potential upshot of genetic modification: not just to keep what we have, but to build and design what we want.

Are We Ready for Life at 150?

By Kathryn Ziden

A future in which we live to be 150 years old is no longer far-off or science fiction. Global life expectancy figures doubled within the last century. Advances in healthcare, precision medicine, gene and immunotherapies and genetic engineering will likely lead to increased longevity sooner than current trends predict. But are we prepared for this future?

Are we prepared for this future financially? The current system of Social Security and Medicare is failing, facing “long-term financing shortfalls,” according to the Social Security Administration.

A report out earlier this year from The Brookings Institution adds that the gap between lifetime benefits received by poor and less-educated workers versus those received by wealthy, well-educated workers is widening. In addition, age discrimination in the workplace may prevent older generations from working the longer careers that will be financially required of them.

Are we prepared for this future socially? What will the concept of marriage be like, especially given the current prevalence of “gray divorce?” An entirely new healthcare system, perhaps based on A.I., will need to be created to deal with the shifting demographics. If careers span 100 years instead of 40, innovation in corporations and universities may stall, hindered by the stagnant ideas of long-standing CEOs and professors.

Are we prepared for this future politically? Increased lifespans coupled with a slowing, but still positive population growth rate will lead to a more crowded Earth. Increased competition for resources will likely result in new domestic and international conflicts. Longer lifetimes will also increase the use of public services, placing additional strains on budgets and increasing deficit spending.

Even without major S&T advances, extended longevity is inevitable; it is time to prepare now. The good news is that all of the problems outlined here are fixable, if we begin the dialogue and planning that will be required now. There are a large number of scientists working in the field of aging, gerontology, longevity, and other biological or medical fields whose work is directly affecting human life expectancy. It is time that there be the same commitment from the policy side.

Don’t Be Afraid of Our Bright Future

By Charles Mueller

 The story of human history has been about becoming healthier, smarter and stronger.  We have always been searching for ways to overcome the limitations imposed on us by Mother Nature using science and technology.  Through a conscious effort aimed at making us the best we can be, we have proven time and again that we can make what was once impossible, possible, always improving our way of life along the way.

 So then why did a Pew Research Center survey find evidence to support the claim that the majority of American’s are afraid of the technologies on the horizon that will make us healthier, smarter and stronger?  Why are we afraid of enhancing ourselves with bio- and neuro-technologies that can help us fight off disease and/or perform miracles like restoring vision to the blind?   

 The reality is we’ve been using S&T to improve our lives since we could.  Today millions can walk because of prosthetics, they can breathe because of organ transplants and they can access the largest database of human knowledge in the blink of an eye thanks to the Internet and their Smart phones.  We love technology, and modern advancements, while mysterious in how they work for most, are just the next phase in what we’ve always been doing.  

 We need these next generation human enhancement technologies.  Their proper use today could drastically improve the quality of life for billions.  Aside from that, the human species is a fragile, intelligent and creative species.  These technologies, if developed and applied in the right ways, can help us overcome our fragility, increase our intelligence and expand our creativity.  The future versions of us will have very different problems than the ones of today and ensuring they have the tools to survive their challenges, which might range to dealing with a natural ice age to colonizing another planet, is the greatest gift we could hope to give.  These tools, properly developed, are that gift. 

 Using these technologies is the first step in developing the knowledge about how to properly develop, manage and control these awesome technologies.  It is the first step in learning how to control and adapt our human systems to the environments of the future, be they here on Earth or out in the cosmos.  We will never be able to remove all the risk associated with their use, and there are bound to be accidents, but as humans we take equivalent risks all the time, every day.  It is good we are starting this conversation because it means there is public pressure to ensure we evolve these technologies with foresight and caution.  However, we have to ensure the dialogue doesn’t halt the progress these tools promise.  Abandoning a transparent, global pursuit of these technologies will only relegate their development to the shadows, an environment primed to foster our greatest fears. 

 We need to continue to embrace the technologies that will help us grow to be healthier, smarter and stronger, not be afraid of them.  These tools can help us start evolving ourselves with some foresight instead of blindly hoping we get to where we need to go.  We need these human new enhancement technologies so let’s figure out how to manage this reality instead of denying it.  Our future literally depends on it.

The Box is Open, Now What?

Charles Mueller

Today we have the ability to modify the DNA in any organism we can isolate.  Yet we still don’t have the knowledge to be able to precisely know how these changes will translate into new behaviors. 

In the latest example, the people of Key Haven, Florida are about to be part of new medical experiment, approved by the FDA, and to be carried out by a company called Oxitec.  This company is planning to release millions of genetically modified mosquitos into the wild in hopes of containing the spread of the Zika virus.  Really cool idea, but do we know if there are any potential negative consequences?  Well according the FDAs Environmental Assessment the people of Key Haven have nothing to worry about.  How exactly was the FDA able to make such a call?

Most of the ability to say that certain genetic modifications in other species (or even humans) will not have an impact on human health is based on laboratory data and existing biological theory, not on actual direct evidence, like human clinical trials.  There would be no problem with this except for the fact laboratory data rarely translates into the clinic and our existing biological theory is incomplete, routinely riddled with “exceptions” that are only understood in hindsight.  The process therefore banks on a scientific consensus that boils down to an educated prediction.  So when the FDA reviewed Oxitec’s data and the theories they cited, it is simply not possible for them say with certainty that releasing genetically modified mosquitos into the wild will not have an impact on human health or the environment; no direct evidence exists to support such a claim or even a solid theory to back it up.

As scientists, we want to test our ideas and challenge our theories, but we have to do it wisely.  We have to do it with foresight and we need to accept that we may need to move more slowly towards the really exciting experiments.  It is our job to ensure we don’t become cowboys firing off experiments with unknown consequences whenever we gather enough support or have a nice financial incentive (Oxitec looks to make $400M off this technology).  We need to be humble, we need to move forward, but we must always remain cautious when our experiments are potentially playing in a sandbox we’ve never played in before.

In order to move forward properly we need to accept we probably don’t know as much as we think we do.  If we are going to continue to mess with the DNA of organisms and the nature of ecosystems let’s at least make sure we are doing our best to collect all the data about what is changing when we do this and obtain consent from the people potentially affected.  If we do that, we can use the information to better inform our policies on how to appropriately design and manage these new “experiments”.

Pandora’s box is open and the situation surrounding the use of the Oxitec mosquito is just the hot issue in the news today.  We need a strategy to fill our gaps in the knowledge of biological sciences and in how to manage this awesome power over how life on this planet exists and evolves.

Future By Design

By Charles Mueller

The future of humanity is by design.   There is no use debating this or wasting our breath figuring out if doing such a thing is moral or ethical.  The basic facts are that tools like CRISPR have given us the ability to manipulate our genome in ways only limited by our imagination and people all over the world have already begun to tinker with life’s forbidden fruit.  We are probably less than a year away from some do-it-yourself biologist engineering a breakthrough in their garage similar to how “drop-outs” like Gates, Allen, Jobs and Wozniak helped engineer the impossible under the radar.  Hopefully this will be a great surprise, like Microsoft and Apple were, and not a terrible mistake that sends us down a path where we do everything we can to prevent such manipulation of the DNA of life.

There are two realities of human existence.  The first is that if humanity hopes to survive they will have to eventually get off this planet before the Sun eats Earth or some other existential threat destroys it.  The second is that humanity will eventually have to evolve beyond its fragile biology.  Regardless if we choose to suppress this reality today, eventually we will have to take a more active role in how our biology is put together if we truly want to survive.  The earlier we start obtaining the experiences, the knowledge and the tools to do this, the sooner we will have assurance that humanity will live on.

The future of humanity is by design and I can think of no better time to start that journey than now.