February 11, 2016
The Skinny on Genes

The Skinny on Genes

What could a petri dish have to do with national security? A whole lot, according to U.S. intelligence officials. As far as our top spy, James Clapper, is concerned, that's where the world may be building the latest weapon of mass destruction (WMD). Like most technology, genetic engineering is a blessing in the right hands -- and a threat in the wrong ones. Nuclear energy is a perfect example. On one hand, it gives us the power to heat our homes -- and on the other, the capability to destroy millions of others'.

The same is true of modifying DNA. Rewriting genes can cure people of terrible diseases, but it can also, as Clapper points out, give our adversaries a lethal way to terrorize the world. That's becoming an even greater possibility now with the breakthrough of the CRISPR, one of the simplest and most inexpensive ways to edit genes. "Easy to use," MIT's Technology Review explains, "Hard to control." With "do-it-yourself" kits as cheap as $700 ("includes everything you'll need to 'bend DNA to your will!') experts are worried that this science is the biggest menace no one knows about. The intelligence community is hoping to change that by including the technology as a WMD in its yearly threat assessment report. "Given the broad distribution, low cost, and accelerated pace of development of this dual-use technology, its deliberate or unintentional misuse might lead to far-reaching economic and national security implications," officials points out.

The science is included in a handful of more "conventional" threats, like Syria's chemical weapons or Russia's cruise missiles. "Clapper didn't lay out any particular bioweapons scenarios," MIT explained, "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." These are the very real risks in a world where what once seemed impossible moves into the realm of the realistic. One look at the international headlines, and it's obvious that the intelligence director's concerns are valid ones. As we've seen in North Korea and Iran, once the technology exists, it will eventually be used by people with nefarious purposes.

Of course, there is an upside to this kind of research, which is that scientists are using it to treat patients for liver disease and other illness. "It's still early days, but the ability to tweak DNA more precisely is going to revolutionize gene therapy, the idea of installing healthy, working genes in adults and children with devastating genetic diseases like hemophilia." But, like stem cell research, this gets into muddy waters ethically when scientists use the method to "rewrite" human embryos -- by killing one to create another or building a made-to-order baby.

As former FRCer Dr. David Prentice pointed out, "At a recent Washington, D.C. conference, instead of thoroughly debating the ethical concerns, American, British, and Chinese genetic engineers discussed the "glorious potential" of gene-modified humans seeking ways to further, not hinder, experimentation. The headlong rush ignores concerns for safety, ethics, alternatives, and public dialog."

In one of the few positive (and least talked about) stories from last December's omnibus bill, Congress managed to put the brakes on hair-raising experiments like human-animal chimeras and three-parent embryos in the Agriculture part of the spending bill. FRC and Susan B. Anthony List worked extensively on the amendment to make that protection a reality. Thanks to pro-lifer Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), language barring the genetic manipulation of these tiny humans passed -- giving Congress more time to debate and weigh the consequences of these advances. Let's hope members come the same conclusion we do before this science becomes another kind of threat -- to humanity.