Dominik Peters: “How risky is CRISPR gene-editing technology?”

By Tom Sittler

Read and comment on the Google Document version of the post here

This is part of a series of posts about our progress in the first five days of the Oxford Prioritisation Project. 

Dominik Peters: “How risky is CRISPR gene-editing technology?”

Dominik's research memorandum:

CRISPR is a new biotechnology under development that will allow editing genomes. In particular, it would probably allow a technique called “gene drives” that ensure that the gene edit will be passed on to all offspring of the parent animal, allowing it to spread potentially to all members of a species if it is fast-reproducing. Within effective altruism, there has been some excitement of using this technology to prevent mosquitoes from carrying the malaria parasite or to reduce suffering in wild animals. While expressing optimism, David Pearce mentions that CRISPR gene drives could be used by bioterrorists to cause large-scale catastrophe with relatively little education needed and with equipment that would only cost a few thousand dollars (a commonly mentioned possibility is engineering mosquitoes to carry a deadly toxin killing humans). If so, then advocating for policies limiting the likelihood of this happening may be very impactful.

However, it seems to me that such a scenario is not that likely, might well be reversible, and probably will not come close to an extinction-level threat. In addition, there seems to be a healthy awareness of these problems in the scientific community (for example, a letter to Science calls for classifying gene drive research or another piece in Science by gene drive scientists on “safeguarding gene drive experiments in the laboratory”) suggesting that advocating for good policy in this area is not too neglected. In detailed conversation notes of the Open Philanthropy Project with Dr Kevin Esvelt in March 2015, it is noted that “Gene drives are unlikely to pose a catastrophic risk to global ecosystems becausethey are detectable and reversible”. Further, “It is unlikely that gene drives could ever be an effective weapon and it’s not clear how they could be used to target a single nation.“ About the toxic mosquitoes: “While thisproject is technically feasible, it is on par with the most ambitious bioengineering projects worldwide.” They also talked about involvement of the Wyatt Institute and the Gates Foundation in pushing for formal recommendations for gene drive usage. An opinion piece by two politics professors working on regulating biotech says that equipment costs would be $100,000-200,000, some of it specific to the species targeted, that expert knowledge is required, and that there are several other practical obstructions, at least with the current level of technology. They also note that gene drives will not be able to modify viruses, since they do not reproduce sexually.

For next time, Dominik will be working on first-pass assessment of Michael Dickens’ cause prioritisation model.