CRISPR weapons? The dark side of gene editing

Although I did suspect CRISPR technologies would end up on such lists, this was new knowledge, so I entered the rabbit hole. While researching the topic, I accidentally stumbled upon a (non-peer reviewed) preprint essay on ResearchGate, “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 was needed). It was like Vincent Vega opening the mysterious briefcase in Pulp Fiction. “We happy?” “Yeah, we happy.”

It’s a scary read that includes real research and vague hypothetical scenarios. Although it’s sometimes somewhat confusing and irrational, the text gives some insight into the rationality behind cancer-inducing CRISPR-based biological weapons.

Let’s look into the essay critically and 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 and how its ease of use allows almost anyone to edit genes. Werner describes how his research goes hand-in-hand with CRISPR editing, analyzing gene networks to cure cancer.   

The essay’s title indicates where the arguments are heading; a warning about the threats of CRISPR, a potentially dangerous war weapon. So, when you get to the premise, you sense the turning point.

One of the premises is presented in bright light: CRISPR is easy to use, and almost anyone can use it, irrespective of education level. Beautiful.

But then, by the second premise, the tone darkens. Because once you know how to stop cancer, it turns out you know how to create it. That went dark pretty fast.

So, by now, Werner has implanted two statements in your consciousness:

A) CRISPR is easy to use, and almost anyone can use the technology.

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 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 Dr. Werner’s intention (who knows?), but his rhetoric is revealing.

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 going from that to creating a CRISPR cancer bomb is quite a leap, my friend. And, here’s the beauty of it all, Dr. Werner unintentionally reveals this to be the case.

At the beginning of the review, Dr. Werner mentions that his team can create and stop cancers in computerized models and data simulations. In short, these models can create tumors using digital networks of specific genes and 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 a cell’s genome. All this on a computer.

Gene network schematic showing the interaction, regulation of different genes.
An example of how a super-simple network representation could look like. Arrows point depict activation and red arrows indicate inhibition.

Of course, we’d need to apply the knowledge to living cells and, ultimately, multicellular organisms like humans before we can reverse this process in real life, which Dr. Werner also points out.

Where are Joe and Jane now? They can inject premade CRISPR-Cas into their bodies (please don’t!) But, to create a war or genocide, they still need to understand the intricate genetic networks of cancers and then apply this knowledge 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 like a circular game, and I don’t appreciate these games; they make me dizzy.

Granted, he admits that curing cancers can take a long time or “may be just around the corner,” (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.

Let’s leave the premises and look into the arguments that CRISPR is 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 Dr. Werner leaves the individual for a bit and focuses on the military and terrorists. He postulates that CRISPR can be used in wars and genocides.

The main reasons that CRISPR gene editing is potentially extremely dangerous, Dr. 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 (a highlighted example in the review).

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 between real information and 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, you’re left in the dark about which parts depict the present and which are future possibilities.

Starting a CRISPR warfare is complicated

At one point, while discussing the dangerous features of CRISPR technology, Dr. Werner mentions that the tools are already used in mosquitos. That’s true! By changing the genes of malaria-carrying mosquitos, researchers can spread a genetic change through generations at a fast rate, a process called a “gene drive,” and it can reduce the spreading of disease-carrying mosquitos.

The review doesn’t mention that these experiments have never been tested in the wild. They’re all currently at a laboratory level. But that’s not clarified in the review, which becomes misleading.

Representation of gene drive in mosquitos using CRISPR/Cas9.
Example of how gene drive works. Wikipedia and created by Mariuswalter (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The lack of real-world evidence is crucial to point out. Although some portray advanced CRISPR scenarios as ongoing, it’s important to note that our genome and its network are extremely complex. And we know even less about targeting specific population groups based on traits, such as 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.

Researchers have difficulties changing some single genes in simple cell lines in real life. And it’s even harder to translate successful cases to controlled animal models. Imagine the complexity involved in targeting 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 CRISPR weapons?

When Dr. 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 (since 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 of 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 isn’t 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, at least.

Is CRISPR good or evil, then? What’s the point?

Ease-of-use doesn’t mean must-use. Potentially dangerous doesn’t mean a malicious tool. The tool itself shouldn’t be the concern, but the fact that some people would want to harm others. CRISPR itself doesn’t present a danger. Although CRISPR tools are so-called “dual-use technologies” with beneficial and detrimental features, the actors are potentially dangerous.

Many dangers around you

Especially in science, almost any finding has the potential to become dangerous. 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: How we can diagnose viruses through DNA amplification and sequencing.

To deviate a bit, a baseball bat can also be extremely dangerous. Use the bat to score a home run (my lingo might be off here), and we’ll cheer for you. Use it on the streets drunk by night, and we’ll fear you.  

Old picture of NY Yankees and Boston Red Sox baseball players holding their bats.
Cool! Baseball! But imagine this handsome crew roaming the streets by night with bottles of cheap liquor. Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

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 truly 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 thousands of people. The US dropped herbicide chemicals with long-lasting gene-damaging effects over the Vietnamese during the 60s and 70s.

The examples are plentiful. So instead of pointing fingers at a technology, shouldn’t we investigate the actual roots of these atrocities?

Dr. 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!

In short, a biotech tool is not, per definition, good or bad; it just is, and people give it a quality.

So what’s the point?

You might be thinking back and realizing that the essay I’m referring to here is a non-peer-reviewed preprint on ResearchGate. “Why are you taking this thing so seriously if it’s just a dent in the debate?”

Because these disproportionate scare tactics are more common and visible than ever. Sensation-seeking arguments trigger exaggerated fears through their vagueness (what’s real or hypothetical) and specific finger-pointing. 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. Use your critical thinking skills.


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