Synthesizing Genomes and Weaponizing Gene Editing


Last month, a closed-door meeting at Harvard Medical School about synthesizing human DNA drew criticism for its secrecy. The 150 or so attendees at the meeting were told not to talk to the media, although a conference organizer said there was a misunderstanding about the reasons for this injunction.

Still, it is understandable that the public is wary of scientists holding secret genetic engineering conferences, as advances in the biotech field appear to be happening incredibly quickly, generating a diverse array of headlines even in the single month since the conference, and bringing the frontiers of science further into ethical gray areas.

Last week, for example, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine issued a report endorsing the continuation of research into a technology called “gene drive,” which “for the first time gives humans the power to alter or perhaps eliminate entire populations of organisms in the wild,” according to the New York Times.

Gene drive is made possible using CRISPR, a bacteria-based genome-editing tool that has been developed over the last few years and reportedly gives genetic engineers greater precision than older gene splicing techniques. Where a genetically engineered trait might previously spread only slowly through a population or die off altogether, “gene drive” allows an engineered organism to pass on the target trait to all of its offspring, spreading the trait rapidly through the population, regardless of its value for the species’ survival.

A summary of the National Academies report notes that “the ability to alter and perhaps to eliminate wild species will be intrinsically objectionable to some people. Proposals to use gene drives in ways that might lead to the extinction of species will require especially careful review.”

In other genetic engineering news, a few days after the closed-door Harvard conference, the New York Times ran with the headline “Genetically Engineered Crops Are Safe, Analysis Finds,” although the content of the article seems in some ways to challenge that assertion.

The “analysis” the Times refers to, which, like the “gene drive” report is also from the National Academies, is not actually newly released results of an experiment – or at least not a conventional one conducted in a laboratory – but a review of existing research. And despite the Times’ headline, the report itself was more conservative.

“We received impassioned requests to give the public a simple, general, authoritative answer about GE crops,” it states. “Given the complexity of GE issues, we did not see that as appropriate.” While the report’s findings on potential GMO dangers are not dire, the Times’ explanation of some of the report’s methods is alarming in its implications, and does seem to suggest an experiment, of sorts.

“The committee also looked at the incidence of certain diseases, in some cases comparing rates in North America, where genetically modified crops have been part of the diet since 1996, and Western Europe, where food from biotech crops is not eaten much,” the Times reports. “It said it found no evidence that the crops had contributed to an increase in the incidence of cancer, obesity, diabetes, kidney disease, autism, celiac disease or food allergies.”

It may be encouraging that such dangers of GM crops have not been found, but the very idea that the safety of food products should be determined by feeding them to the entire population of a continent for 20 years, and then comparing that population with a control group, is rather horrifying. That the National Academies are resorting to such methods is nothing short of an admission that the US public have been used as guinea pigs in a massive experiment.

Literal pigs, meanwhile, or something like them, have also been in the news in relation to biotech and genetics research. Researchers at UC Davis have reportedly succeeded in creating part-human, part-pig embryos as part of their ongoing effort to grow human organs in pigs for use in organ transplants.

This may be a promising step towards the researchers’ goals. Still, the National Institutes of Health has reportedly objected to backing the research, citing “fears that the presence of human cells could affect the animal’s brain and behaviour, potentially making it more human. Prof Pablo Ross, the reproductive biologist leading the research, sought to calm those fears, saying there was a ‘very low potential for a human brain to grow'” in the pigs.

Prof. George Church, who also was an organizer of the closed-door Harvard meeting in May and was quoted in the New York Times and Washington Post defending its secrecy, also commented publicly on the pig “chimera” research.

“It opens up the possibility of not just transplantation from pigs to humans but the whole idea that a pig organ is perfectible,” Church reportedly said. “Gene editing could ensure the organs are very clean, available on demand and healthy, so they could be superior to human donor organs.”

As for Church’s defense of the private nature of the genome synthesis conference, the Post reports:

The organizers had planned to stream video of the event, and invite numerous journalists, he said. But they had also hoped to pair the event with an article, written by many scientists, that had submitted to a major scientific journal.

The article still hasn’t been published and the organizers decided to keep the event private, Church said. He said the organizers wanted to avoid being accused of “science by press release” without a peer-reviewed article backing them up.

Details included in the Times’ story, however, suggest that other public relations concerns in fact played a role in the changing nature of the conference.

“The project was initially called HGP2: The Human Genome Synthesis Project, with HGP referring to the Human Genome Project. An invitation to the meeting at Harvard said that the primary goal ‘would be to synthesize a complete human genome in a cell line within a period of 10 years,'” the Times reports. “But by the time the meeting was held, the name had been changed to “HGP-Write: Testing Large Synthetic Genomes in Cells.”

The Times paraphrased Church as saying there had been a misunderstanding, and the effort “was not aimed at creating people, just cells, and would not be restricted to human genomes.” Still, there are legitimate reasons to wonder if the public is getting the whole story regarding these new advances in genetic engineering.

In February, James Clapper, U.S. director of national intelligence, added gene editing to a list of potential “weapons of mass destruction.” The MIT Technology Review reports:

The concern is that biotechnology is a “dual use” technology—meaning normal scientific developments could also be harnessed as weapons. The report noted that new discoveries “move easily in the globalized economy, as do personnel with the scientific expertise to design and use them.”

Clapper didn’t lay out any particular bioweapons scenarios, but scientists have previously speculated about whether CRISPR could be used to make “killer mosquitoes,” plagues that wipe out staple crops, or even a virus that snips at people’s DNA.

Considering the typical approach of the U.S. government to scientific breakthroughs and technology that it thinks can be weaponized, it’s not surprising that some people are wondering what exactly was being discussed behind those closed doors at Harvard.



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