Spy Chief Calls Gene Editing A Weapon Of Mass Destruction 

Spy Chief Calls Gene Editing a Weapon of Mass Destruction

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.

[Technology Review]

Image: Shutterstock/isak55

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    Well I guess the Goodies had best maintain sufficient science funding and science education to stay ahead of the Baddies...

      as long as the science isn't settled...

        I'm trying to imagine what a settled science would look like.
        Perhaps, if everyone stopped doing science?

          Heliocentric astronomy, the periodic table and structure of the atom, geologic time scale, plate tectonics, Newtonian physics and relativity (and if you give me that moonshine about how Einstein "overthrew" Newton, you don't know enough to be here), evolution, Maxwell's Equations ......

          This is science so thoroughly tested that claiming it's "unsettled" marks you as a crank.

            We know that Relativity and Newtonian mechanics aren't quite right because they implicitly generate hard infinities. This very day we have a demonstration that relativity is a living experimental science.

            Nobody thinks the periodic table is complete, and there are numerous questions about both its measured values and the underlying mechanisms.

            I expect geneticists and biologists will be improving our understanding of evolutionary processes for thousands of years.

            These sciences are very good models of reality, and if we don't fool ourselves that they're 'settled' we'll do work to improve them even more.

            You want settled? Go read a holy book, apparently they're perfect.

            Now we know what the "D" stands for. (>;

      I thought you were talking about Bill Oddie, Tim Brook Taylor, and Graeme Garden for a moment there.
      Only they can protect us against gene weapons!

    My name is KHAN!!
    yes that's right kids, today's science is tomorrows eugenics wars..

      I honestly think you are exactly correct.
      People expecting a runaway explosion in AI seem to forget that a runaway explosion in human intelligence may be much more imminent.
      The population is about to get sharply divided into the enhanced and the obsolete, and countries which fight the wave are doomed to be in the latter camp.

    Designing gene-enhanced weapons requires a whole raft of specialized skills. Then again, so does creating nuclear weapons or drones. Hasn't stopped some low-budget players from doing it.

    Here's a scary thought. Instead of, say, super-anthrax, imagine a virulent bug that attacks only certain target groups.

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