What if scientists devised to introduce new genetic alternations in a way that ensured the altered genes spread rapidly through a species in the wild?
The scientists who have done just that contend their inventions would ensure the rapid diffusion of genetic traits that would benefit humanity.
But that assertion implies a godlike omniscience, and if we know anything of the fathomless human capacity for hubris, just sucj thinking invariably leads to catastrophe.
Over the next four years a new program in the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) plans to cultivate, among other things, a kind of cleanup crew for engineered genes deemed harmful to or undesirable in an ecosystem. The initiative, called Safe Genes, comes at a time when so-called “gene drive” systems, which override the standard rules of gene inheritance and natural selection, are raising hopes among some scientists that the technology could alter or suppress populations of disease-carrying insects or other pests in as few as 20 generations.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation sees so much promise in gene drive technology that it plans to double spending on its Target Malaria initiative, which aims to create systems for driving genes in two species of malaria mosquitoes, to $70 million. Yet without careful precautions, a gene drive released into the wild could spread or change in unexpected ways. Kevin Esvelt, head of the Sculpting Evolution lab at MIT Media Lab, which is applying for Safe Genes funding in collaboration with eight other research groups, predicts that eventually, perhaps around 15 years from now, an accident will allow a drive with potential to spread globally to escape laboratory controls. “It’s not going to be bioterror,” he says, “it’s going to be ‘bioerror.’”
DARPA itself has been one of the largest public funders of synthetic biology research in the U.S. in recent years, upping its spending on synthetic biology projects to more than $100 million in 2014 from nothing in 2010, according to one analysis. The agency announced its Safe Genes program in September 2016 and plans to award funding to multiple research teams by the first half of 2017. “If we’re going to be really bullish about genome engineering,” says DARPA program manager Renee Wegrzyn, “we need to be just as aggressive with tools to reverse those changes.”
The fact that t’s the Pentagon which has backed the technology should be frightening enough, given that the building they’re in was built by the same fellow who headed the American nuclear weapons program for what was then called [more honestly than today] the Department of War.
Civil groups call for a stop to gene drives
And now a coalition of global environmental , labor, and other civil groups is calling for a halt to the new technology.
From Via Campesina News:
At the 2016 UN Convention on Biodiversity held in Cancun Mexico this month, international conservation and environmental leaders called upon governments to establish a moratorium on the controversial genetic extinction technology called gene drives.
Gene drives, developed through new gene-editing techniques- are designed to force a particular genetically engineered trait to spread through an entire wild population – potentially changing entire species or even causing deliberate extinctions. The statement urges governments to put in place an urgent, global moratorium on the development and release of the new technology, which poses serious and potentially irreversible threats to biodiversity, as well as national sovereignty, peace and food security.
Over 170 civil society organisations from six continents have joined the call. Among them were environmental organizations including Friends of the Earth International; trade unions such as the International Union of Food Workers representing over 10 million workers in 127 countries; the largest global organization of small-scale famers La Via Campesina International, and organics movements like the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements; the international indigenous peoples’ organization Tebtebba; scientist coalitions including European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility and Unión de Científicos Comprometidos con la Sociedad (Mexico); as well as ETC Group and Third World Network.
We can be certain that corporations seeking to release the new technology into the world will lie about it, just as Monsanto conducted a massive smear campaign to destroy the reputations and careers of scientists like Ignacio Chapela of the University of California at Berkeley [previously] when he reported that genes from Monsanto’s patented corn strains had escaped into the wild, infecting root race varieties of maize in Mexico.
The Law of Unintended Consequences speaks to the inevitability that actions on complex system designed to create a similar response will inevitably lead to other consequences unanticipated by those who initiate the actions.
And when those actions could impact the whole biosphere, we should tremble in our boots.