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Gene Editing Through the Biosecurity Lens

As scientists on the front lines of any new technology, it’s our responsibility to think not just about how others might use it, but also about how others might misuse it. We see this today in pioneering fields such as synthetic biology and gene editing, where researchers are leading the way to ensure that new methods are used for constructive purposes. There is ample evidence that the alternative of waiting for technology abuses to trigger knee-jerk legislative reactions is not the path to choose for modern biology advances.

The questions these research groups are asking are quite familiar to me. I spent more than 40 years as a computer scientist working at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where I had the good fortune of being involved since the earliest days of the Human Genome Project and eventually moved into biodefense. My team co-developed with CDC some of the first PCR signatures for bio-threat microbes; these became the foundation of a wide-area biodetection system used in Salt Lake City for the 2002 Winter Olympics. I also helped launch in fall 2001 a surveillance system in Washington, DC, that expanded in early 2003 to become the nation’s insurance policy against a large-scale release of aerosolized pathogens. That system, BioWatch, is still in place today in more than 30 cities. Other opportunities came from work in microbial forensics, detection of antimicrobial agents for human health applications, and participation on a recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine panel on biodefense in the age of synthetic biology.

When it comes to preventing disasters, there’s a temptation to prepare to fight the last war. It’s so important to focus instead on what’s next. While we may be somewhat ready to deal with anthrax letters, what are the new risks coming over the horizon? After leaving Livermore, I now work as a consultant; helping organizations perform exactly that kind of forward-looking risk assessment is one of the things I work on.

Today I have the pleasure of working with Inscripta, a genome engineering startup that has been considering the potential pitfalls of a CRISPR-powered world since day 1. My favorite part about this approach is that it creates a real opportunity for Inscripta to set the bar high and help guide the new genome-scale editing industry toward best practices from the start. This wouldn’t be possible without a dedicated team that truly wants to improve the world and is willing to build safeguards into their platform to avoid misuse.

You might imagine that I’m the kind of person who’s always expecting nefarious activity. But that’s really not true. When it comes to areas like synthetic biology or gene editing, I think ‘bio error’ is at least as likely as bio-terror. By taking appropriate precautions, we can help to ensure that many of the inevitable errors as genome-scale engineering becomes widespread don’t have the chance to become truly dangerous.

Common-sense precautions include looking carefully at analogous examples — such as the International Gene Synthesis Consortium — to see what works. Screening customers is a no-brainer. It’s knowable, for instance, whether labs have government contracts to work on certain agents. That’s the first line of defense, ensuring that anyone working on a risky organism or with risky gene mechanisms has a legitimate reason for doing so. For a field like gene editing, it might be more difficult to predict potential consequences of each complex experiment. Seriously asking “what’s the worst that could happen?” could be a helpful gene-resolution lens through which to evaluate potential harmful gain of function risk.

We must remain humble and acknowledge that there are limits to our ability to detect possible malice. Misuse and mistakes cannot be avoided completely. But as long as good people with clever minds are committed to trying as hard as they can, I have confidence that we can keep learning and improve our ability to catch bad actors before they have a chance to wreak havoc.

(Originally published on my LinkedIn account)


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