Daily Mail – Since the 2012 launch of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tool, the possibility of altering the genetic makeup of living organisms has become far more accessible.
Recent plans to use these techniques to obstruct mosquitoes’ disease-carrying abilities have raised concerns from both experts and the public, and some have even argued that the tool can be used to create biological weapons.
Now, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has revealed a new program that aims to set a ‘safe course’ for this field, with hopes that their toolkit can work both to support bio-innovation and combat bio-threats.
Darpa’s ‘Safe Genes’ program comes partially in response to recent advancements in ‘gene drives.’
This technique allows certain edited traits to be carried among a population of organisms as it is passed on to subsequent generations.
'SAFE GENES' OBJECTIVES
1. Develop genetic constructs for spatial, temporal, and reversible control of the genome editors in living systems
2. Develop molecular countermeasures to prevent or limit genome editing in organisms and protect genome integrity in populations
3. Develop a way to eliminate unwanted genes and restore the systems to their baseline state
The ‘rapid democratization’ of gene editing comes with inherent risks, the agency explains.
But, the new program will attempt to address these risks to unlock the field’s potential.
An introduction to genome editing using CRISPR/Cas9 techniques
‘Gene editing holds incredible promise to advance the biological sciences, but right now responsible actors are constrained by the number of unknowns and a lack of controls,’ said Renee Wegrzyn, Darpa program manager.
‘Darpa wants to develop controls for gene editing and derivative technologies to support responsible research and defend against irresponsible actors who might intentionally release modified organisms.’
The Safe Genes program has three main objectives: develop genetic constructs for spatial, temporal, and reversible control of the genome editors in living systems, develop molecular countermeasures to prevent or limit genome editing in organisms and protect genome integrity in populations, and develop a way to eliminate unwanted genes and restore the systems to their baseline state.
Essentially, it aims to address the key safety gaps to establish an array of options to deal with the potential threats.
Gene editing tools are both low cost and highly available, the agency explains, with potential for both positive and negative applications.
WHAT IS CRISPR AND HOW IS IT USED?
CRISPR-Cas9 is a tool for making precise edits in DNA, discovered in bacteria. The acronym stands for 'Clustered Regularly Inter-Spaced Palindromic Repeats'.
The technique involves a DNA cutting enzyme and a small tag which tells the enzyme where to cut. By editing this tag, scientists are able to target the enzyme to specific regions of DNA and make precise cuts, wherever they like.
It has been used to 'silence' genes - effectively switching them off.
When cellular machinery repairs the DNA break, it removes a small snip of DNA. In this way, researchers can precisely turn off specific genes in the genome.
The approach has been used previously to edit the gene called HBB responsible for a condition called β-thalassaemia.
And, this means it could be accessed by people ‘outside of the traditional scientific community.’
The program will be further discussed at a Proposers Day on September 30 at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C.
According to Wegrzyn, ‘Darpa is pursuing a suite of versatile tools that can be applied independently or in combination to support bio-innovation or combat bio-threats.’
GENE EDITING TOOLS COULD BE USED BY 'BIOHACKERS'
Professor John Parrington, a molecular biologist at Oxford University, claims cheap gene editing tools are becoming widely available around the world.
This is giving DIY scientists the chance to genetically alter organisms like bacteria and yeast to give them properties not seen in nature.
While most of these are harmless activities, such as developing tests to identify fish being sold in restaurants or to create yeasts that will imbibe craft beer with new flavours, there are growing concerns this could be misused to cause harm.
The FBI is so concerned about the activities of biohackers it has set up a special branch within its Weapons of mass Destruction Directorate to engage with them.
Speaking at the British Science Festival in Swansea, Professor Parrington said there were concerns within the scientific community and security services that it could be used to create a new type of deadly virus or bacteria.
According to the Independent, he said: 'Who knows what will happen in the future. There's some disquiet among the security service about where this is all leading as you might imagine.'