DARPA is funding $100 million to develop gene drive, which can wipe out dangerous animals and insects. It could get rid of malarial mosquitoes and invasive rodents.
Darpa believes that a steep fall in the costs of gene-editing toolkits has created a greater opportunity for hostile or rogue actors to experiment with the technology.
“This convergence of low cost and high availability means that applications for gene editing – both positive and negative – could arise from people or states operating outside of the traditional scientific community and international norms,” the official said. “It is incumbent on Darpa to perform this research and develop technologies that can protect against accidental and intentional misuse.”
Gene-drive research has been pioneered by an Imperial College London professor, Andrea Crisanti, who confirmed he has been hired by Darpa on a $2.5m contract to identify and disable such drives.
“The field of gene editing has been advancing at an astounding pace, opening the door to previously impossible genetic solutions but without much emphasis on how to mitigate potential downsides,” said Renee Wegrzyn, the Safe Genes program manager. “DARPA launched Safe Genes to begin to refine those capabilities by emphasizing safety first for the full range of potential applications, enabling responsible science to proceed by providing tools to prevent and mitigate misuse.”
Each of the seven teams will pursue one or more of three technical objectives: develop genetic constructs—biomolecular “instructions”—that provide spatial, temporal, and reversible control of genome editors in living systems; devise new drug-based countermeasures that provide prophylactic and treatment options to limit genome editing in organisms and protect genome integrity in populations of organisms; and create a capability to eliminate unwanted engineered genes from systems and restore them to genetic baseline states. Safe Genes research will not involve any releases of organisms into the environment; however, the research—performed in contained facilities—could inform potential future applications, including safe, predictable, and reversible gene drives.