Gene editing, like CRISPR, is a scientific breakthrough that may help cure diseases, prevent ageing and change humanity. According to the US intelligence community, it’s also a potential weapon of mass destruction.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper added gene editing to a list of threats that includes North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs and chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria. “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,” Clapper wrote.
MIT Technology Review talked to policy and bioweapons experts about Clapper’s choice:
“Biotechnology, more than any other domain, has great potential for human good, but also has the possibility to be misused,” says Daniel Gerstein, a senior policy analyst at RAND and a former under secretary at the Department of Homeland Defence. “We are worried about people developing some sort of pathogen with robust capabilities, but we are also concerned about the chance of misutilization. We could have an accident occur with gene editing that is catastrophic, since the genome is the very essence of life.”
Piers Millet, an expert on bioweapons at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC, says Clapper’s singling out of gene editing on the WMD list was “a surprise,” since making a bioweapon — say, an extra-virulent form of anthrax — still requires mastery of a “wide raft of technologies.”
While it’s bizarre to see gene editing grouped with nukes and missiles as a threat, this decision shows that Clapper understands the potential for misuse of CRISPR and other gene-editing techniques. Scientists already used a very simple, key building block of life to create the most powerful weapon to date. It’s not unreasonable to assess another breakthrough in meddling with a building block of life as perilous.