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Why DARPA is investing big in gene units

Someday, scientists could use technology such as the genetic drive to eliminate pests such as mosquitoes. IMAGE: Getty Images

A powerful and controversial new genetic engineering technology called a gene unit offers the potential to drastically reshape our world by nullifying natural selection. And the investigative arm of the US Army. UU It is among one of the largest funders of technology research.

It's no secret that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has its eye on gene drive technology. Last year, the agency launched a program to develop a kind of Ctrl-Z function for gene editing that would allow scientists to undo their genetic work if they made an unfortunate mistake and better understood the function of gene-editing technologies . In July, DARPA announced seven research teams that would be the recipients of a total of $ 65 million in grants, with genetic drives one of the main focuses of research.

DARPA's interest in genetic drives-and what the sometimes-secret agency plans to do with them-is back in the headlines this week after a gene-fighting defense group published a treasure trove of emails of gene researchers obtained through a Freedom of Information Act Request. The emails arrive when a United Nations committee meets this week in Montreal to discuss, among other things, how to address the genetic impulses at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity next year in Egypt.

The involvement of the US Army UU In this technology has aroused concerns, understandably. A genetic drive works by nullifying the typical 50-50 blend of natural selection, ensuring that a desired trait introduced by genetic engineering spreads more efficiently through a wild population. Among other things, this technique could be used to design invasive pests so that they disappear from existence. Earlier this year, New Zealand said it was interested in genetic drives as a possible solution to its problem with invasive species (pending much, much more research, of course). If it works outside of laboratory environments, the genetic drive could eventually become a massively powerful technology, allowing the potential to genetically alter an entire species.

The ETC Group, which published the emails, said the rapid development of this technology is a concern that it hoped would shed light.

"The speed with which these developments are expanding is often presented in terms of carefully elaborated speculative conservation and health benefits, while the overwhelming military interest that drives these developments, although not hidden, has been very minimized, "Jim Thomas, head of the group, told Gizmodo by email.

DARPA, however, has not been shy about its real interest in gene drive technology, and that it is not conservation. In fact, the agency even seems to share some of the concerns of the ETC Group.

"The science of gene editing, including gene transfer technology, has been progressing at an accelerated pace in the laboratory," DAPRA told Gizmodo via email. "These advances in potential capacity, however, have not been matched by advances in the biosecurity and biosafety tools needed to protect against potential harm if such technologies were used accidentally or intentionally, nor are there data on how those technologies would actually work in the real world much more complex. "

DARPA is afraid of what might happen if something goes wrong, either in a disastrous or accidental manner. And it's not the only part that expresses that concern. Last month, one of the pioneering scientists behind the possibility of using CRISPR to create a genetic impulse published what he called a "mea culpa" arguing that the technology is not ready for primetime. He said that safe guards are needed to prevent it from spreading uncontrollably in nature.

The seven teams that DARPA is funding under its Secure Genes program are mainly conducting fundamental research. A team from The Broad Institute is developing the means to activate and deactivate genome editing, including the control of gene units in mosquitoes. A team at the Massachusetts General Hospital is looking for better ways to measure the effects of gene editing on the target and off target, with a focus also on driving a mosquito gene. An MIT team is studying how to geographically limit the spread of a genetic impulse and potentially reverse it. Five of the funded teams are working directly on biosecurity and biosafety measures for gene-boosting technologies, the other teams focused on gene editing more broadly.

The concern, of course, is that a military organization like DARPA could change and take those technologies for offensive measures, perhaps, say, a genetic drive that destroys an enemy's crops. It is a potentially terrifying technology. It is easy to let the imagination fly. In the published emails, it is clear that the funded scientists are aware of the image of DARPA as the kind of gloomy government organization that would do such a thing.

The ETC Group argues that the crime of DARPA is that it has not been transparent enough. (On the one hand, it states that the agency is actually spending $ 100 million on technology based on a comment made at a program launch event.) DARPA says it is a misinterpretation of the statement and the original $ 65 million figure is correct) [19659003] However, what is undoubtedly clear in the documents is that DARPA participates in most of the important research on gene drives in the country. And that the military takes very seriously the potential that a technology that alters the world becomes a serious threat.

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