How genetic editing became a national security threat

Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper sent shock waves through the national security and biotechnology communities with his assertion, in his Worldwide Threat Assessment testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in February, that genome editing had become a global danger. He went so far as to include it in the report’s weapons of mass destruction section, alongside threats from North Korea, China’s nuclear modernization, and chemical weapons in Syria and Iraq. The new technology, he said, could open the door to “potentially harmful biological agents or products,” with “far-reaching economic and national security implications.”

So what has warranted this warning, and what can be done to mitigate the threat?

Since the discovery of the double helix in 1953, biotechnology has made progress exceeding that of arguably any other technology in human history. Genome editing is not a new process; it was the subject of the 1975 Asilomar Conference, convened to establish standards that would allow geneticists to conduct cutting-edge research without endangering public health. Since then, advances like the polymerase chain reaction process, the human genome project, and the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements project have fueled our understanding of the human genome, accelerated through advances in computing power, data storage, and big data algorithm development. Landmark results include the first synthesis of a virus in 2002 and the first synthetic cell in 2010. Now along comes clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats—Crispr for short—which is changing everything.

Other editing techniques have been around for more than a decade but they are laborious, less accurate, and quite expensive. Before that, previous traditional methods required generations to see results. While some techniques can recognize longer DNA sequences and have better specificity than Crispr, they are costly ($5,000 for each order versus $30 for Crispr) and difficult to engineer, sometimes requiring several tries to identify a sequence that works. Hence the rise of Crispr, which, along with Crispr associated proteins (Cas), provides a precise way to target, snip, and insert exact pieces of a genome. (The Crispr-Cas9 protein has received the most attention in this recent discussion, yet other enzymatic proteins such as the Crispr-Cpf1 use a different type of “scissors” and might be just as effective.)

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