A recent report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology highlighted growing national concerns about the potential application of advanced biotechnology to the development of horrific biological weapons. The Council (or PCAST) consists of nineteen leading scientists and engineers appointed by the President to advise on matters of science and technology.
PCAST’s concerns are widely shared in the scientific community. Until recently genetic engineering technologies focused on transferring recombinant genes between organisms to confer desirable traits (e.g. disease resistance) or to manufacture quantities of valuable biomedical products like insulin. This can be an inefficient and time-consuming process, taking months or years to complete. But new advances in biotechnology have greatly speeded up—and simplified—genetic engineering of life forms.
One revolutionary new technology, called CRISPR-Cas9, can be used to rapidly and efficiently change (“edit”) the genome of virtually any life form by targeting and altering a specific DNA sequence. This can be a force for tremendous good (for example, preventing specific diseases in humans or improving agricultural crops). It can be a means to dubious ends (think designer babies). And it can be a vehicle for outright evil (imagine a bioterrorist altering a deadly pathogen to overcome disease resistance in plants, animals, or people).
The good news is that governments and scientists are well aware of the potential misuse of new biotechnologies and are formulating strategies and policies to combat this. And the bad news? The technologies are evolving so rapidly that policies are hard-pressed to keep up with advances in science, and are becoming so simple that even ill-intentioned laypersons, with limited funds, could use these tools for nefarious purposes.