Risks of CRISPR weapons – is the danger near? The dark side of gene editing
Did you know that the US intelligence has listed gene-editing technologies like CRISPR-Cas as weapons of mass destruction threats in the Worldwide Threat Assessment? The technology that we’ve welcomed as our disease-fighting, life-saving Messiahs is also considered a weapon.
Although suspecting that it would end up in such lists, this was new knowledge to me, so I fell into the rabbit hole. While digging into the topic, I accidentally stumbled upon a (non-peer reviewed) preprint essay on ResearchGate named “The Coming CRISPR Wars: Or why genome editing can be more dangerous than nuclear weapons”. I smiled and double-clicked the download button (only one click needed). It was like opening the mysterious briefcase. “We happy? Yeah, we happy.”
It’s a scary read that balances between real research and vague hypothetical scenarios. Although it’s somewhat confusing and irrational at times, the text might give us some insight into whether cancer-inducing CRISPR-based biological weapons are rational fears.
Let’s look into the essay with a critical eye, and let’s start from the beginning. What’s the premise?
Combining bright and dark premises
The author, Dr. Eric Werner at the University of Oxford, starts by introducing the revolutionizing aspects of CRISPR-based gene editing, how its ease-of-use allows almost anyone to edit genes. Werner tells us how his research go hand-in-hand with CRISPR-editing, as they analyze gene networks to potentially cure cancer.
The title of the essay points to where the text is aiming; it warns you about the threats of CRISPR, a potentially dangerous war weapon. So, when you get to the premise, you kind of sense the turning point.
One of the premises is presented in bright light, namely that CRISPR is easy to use and almost anyone can use it, irrespective of the education level. Beautiful.
But then the second premise enters, and the tone turns dark. It turns out that once you know how to stop cancer, you know how to create it. That went dark pretty fast.
So, by now, Werner has implanted two statements to your consciousness:
A) CRISPR is easy to use, and almost anyone can use it.
B) Once you know how to stop cancer, you know how to create it.
After your consciousness has accepted these two statements separately, your unconsciousness kicks in, and you may very well create a formula based on these:
A + B = It’s easy for anyone to create a so-called CRISPR cancer bomb. Almost anyone can do it?
You’re now susceptible to the horrific depiction of your future.
Of course, this might not have been the intention of Werner (who knows?), but he should know the effects of his rhetoric.
Let’s rip the two arguments of the premise apart and see where they take us individually. How easy is it to create CRISPR-induced cancer bombs?
“In short [CRISPR-based technologies] allows a person with less than a high school education to edit genomes of any animal or plant.”
Sure, the average Joe or Jane may be able to order a CRISPR kit and start blasting their cells with CRISPR (which I strongly discourage!). But, to go from that to creating a CRISPR cancer bomb is quite a leap, my friend. And the text unintentionally reveals that.
At the very beginning of the review, Werner mentions that he and his team can create and stop cancers in computerized models and data simulations. In short, these models can create tumors using digital networks of genes and can next simulate how a cancer cell would grow. Once this is clear, they can halt or kill the cybernetic cancer cell models by changing the network in the genome of the cell. All this on a computer.
Of course, we’d need to apply the knowledge to living cells and, ultimately, multicellular organisms like, say, humans before we can reverse this process in real life. Werner points this out.
Where are Joe and Jane now? Ok, they can inject premade CRISPR-Cas into their bodies (don’t!). Still, now, if they want to create a war or genocide, they need to understand the intricate genetic networks of cancers? And then apply it to living organisms? Blah!
“Ahh, but Joe and Jane would work in groups, not at an individual level”, you say.
We’ll come to that in a while but first the second premise.
“[…] once we can cure live cancers, CRISPR will make it possible to actually create live cancers.”
But, then again, we can cure that cancer in this theoretical mind game. It feels that this game could spin in circles, and I don’t appreciate these types of games. They make me dizzy.
Granted that he admits that curing cancers can take a long time or “may be just around the corner” (btw, which one are we rooting for at this point?). But, once again, the leap is still massive between understanding how cancer and its networks function and reversing the cancer-treating steps on actual human beings.
And again, by the time we can do that, we would also have the cure… in theory… right?
Let’s leave the premises and look into the arguments painting CRISPR as a “dangerous technology”.
The reasons CRISPR weapons can be so dangerous
At this point, the review changes direction for a moment. The focus shifts to the properties that make CRISPR “potentially extremely dangerous”. Now Werner leaves the individual for a bit and starts focusing on the military and terrorists. CRISPR can be used in wars and genocides.
The main reasons that CRISPR gene editing is potentially extremely dangerous, Werner argues, is that:
- It can target specific genes.
- It can be delivered to people through viruses.
- It can edit selected groups of individuals, for example, brown-eyed (which was just a depicting example in the review).
Somewhat related stuff: How the basic reproduction number of a virus is calculated.
He also argues that nuclear weapons will become obsolete since CRISPR infections are hard to detect, can be organism-specific, and are difficult to cure. “Militarily CRISPR weapons are far superior to nuclear weapons and will likely replace them,” he writes.
Throughout the text, it’s hard to distinguish what parts are real and what parts are loose predictions. But the review clarifies, “this essay is not an exercise in fantasy horror science fiction. It is a very real present and future danger to humanity.” Still, which part depicts the presence and which one is a future possibility, you don’t get to know.
It’s complicated to start a CRISPR warfare
Actually, at one point, when discussing the dangerous features of CRISPR technology, Werner mentions that the tools are already used in mosquitos. That’s true! By changing the genes of malaria-carrying mosquitos, for example, researchers can spread a genetic change through generations at a fast rate. The process is called a “gene drive” and it can reduce the spreading of disease-carrying mosquitos.
What the review doesn’t mention is that these experiments have never been tested in the wild. They’re all at a laboratory level at the moment. But that’s not clarified in the review, which may be considered a bit misleading.
And this is crucial to point out. Although some people present advanced CRISPR scenarios like we’re almost there, we know that our genome and its network are extremely complex. And, we know even less about how to target specific population groups based on traits, such as the brown eyes. We might understand parts of these networks, but translating these theories into practice is a different game.
Related stuff: The limitations of CRISPR-Cas.
In real life, researchers have difficulties even changing some single genes in simple cell lines. And it’s even harder to translate the successful cases to controlled animal models. Imagine how complicated it is to target the right genes in the right cells of a selected group of human beings. On top of that, you’d need to pray that the targeted individual’s DNA damage repair or immune system misses to repair the mutation or kill the cells containing mutations.
It’s not easy being a gangster.
Who would create a CRISPR cancer bomb as a weapon?
When Werner argues, “the ease of creating CRISPR weapons in tiny labs that are practically impossible to detect,” you need to ask yourself, “Who’d do it?”
Here, the essay points to terrorists or organizations with limited resources. Now they have an advantage all of a sudden (because CRISPR weapons are that easy to produce).
I’d argue that due to the complexity of molecular genetics, these groups of outsiders lack the knowledge to – both theoretically and practically – fulfill the attacks. Also, saying that tiny labs are enough to make CRISPR weapons undermines the complexity of genetics. It also underestimates the dangers linked with developing bioweapons.
Developing viruses that infect people with dangerous genetic material requires heavy safety measures that limit the unintended release of pathogens (while work is in progress). Historically, the world has experienced its fair share of accidental releases of dangerous biomaterial. And those are primarily from well-established public-owned labs. A tiny lab cannot be enough if you want to start a CRISPR war.
Which leaves us with the state actors. States often have resources and controlled safety measures for their research.
Luckily, the development of bioweapons is banned by the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which 182 countries have signed (including the superpowers). So, we should be safe… on paper (crossing fingers).
Is CRISPR not evil then? Or what’s the point?
But ease-of-use doesn’t mean must-use. Potentially dangerous doesn’t mean a malicious tool. It’s not the tool itself that is concerning in this case, but instead, the fact that some people would want to harm others. CRISPR itself doesn’t present a danger. Although it is a so-called “dual-use technology”, with both beneficial and detrimental features, it is the actors in the conflict that are dangerous.
Many things around you can be dangerous
Especially in science, almost any finding could be used for dark intentions. To stay on track, even DNA amplification and DNA sequencing – the very essence of molecular biological advances like CRISPR – can be vilified. After all, they helped to create our CRISPR technology. In fact, we could start discrediting many of our biological advances and label them as extremely dangerous. I should make a list. #mustardgasisachemotherapeuticdrug.
Somewhat related stuff: Explaining here how we can diagnose viruses through DNA amplification and sequencing.
To deviate a bit, a baseball bat can also be extremely dangerous. Use it to score a home run (the lingo might be off here), and we’ll cheer for you. Use it on the streets drunk by night, and we’ll fear you.
Finding the real cause of potential CRISPR weapons or CRISPR wars
So, rather than stigmatizing a technology that has great potential to save lives as a “very dangerous technology”, dig deeper. Ask yourself, how did we end up in a situation where groups want to harm our families, friends, and us? Because, if the dark sides really want to harm us with bioweapons – non-state or state actors – they can.
Japan dropped pathogen-infested fleas over China during World War II killing 1000s of people. The US dropped herbicide chemicals with long-lasting gene-damaging effects over the Vietnamese during the 60s and 70s.
The examples are many. So instead of pointing fingers at a technology, shouldn’t we pull the actual roots of these types of atrocities?
Actually, Werner points this out in the essay, “Perhaps we need a new universal ethics so that the need to destroy other groups becomes unnecessary?” Now, THAT makes sense! (If I understood it correctly, that is.)
In essence, a biotech tool is not, per definition, good or bad; it just is, and the people give it a quality.
So what’s the point then?
You might be thinking back and realizing that the essay I’m referring to here is a non-peer reviewed preprint on ResearchGate. “Dude, why are you taking this thing so seriously if it’s just a dent in the debate?”
Sure, it might just be a dent in the debate. Still, these types of disproportionate scare tactics are more common and visible than ever. Sensation-seeking arguments trigger exaggerated fears through their vagueness (what’s real and what’s hypothetical?) and specific finger-pointing (blame CRISPR). They don’t offer realistic viewpoints.
Joe and Jane are always one download away from repeating the mind-tricks: “CRISPR is a very dangerous technology, a biological weapon that will be used for wars.”
I’m not saying it cannot be. I’m sure it can, but try to look at it rationally instead. The rise of critical thinking.
On my speakers:
Rancid – And out come the wolves
The Doors – The end
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