Mosquito sitting on a flower

DARPA invests $100m in gene-drive technology

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The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is investing $100 million in a new gene-editing technology, which many people fear could lead to deliberate and unintended damage on a huge scale.

Gene-drive technology uses CRISPR gene-editing to favour particular genes. This causes them to appear more frequently in offspring and, consequently, in the future population of that species. Gene-drive technology has many positive applications, such as to genetically engineer disease-carrying insects or invasive species – such as stoats in New Zealand – to impair their reproductive capabilities and cut their populations.

There are concerns, however, about the possible unintended consequences of overriding natural selection, potentially throughout an entire species.

In July 2017, DARPA announced that it would be awarding grants of $65 million to seven teams of US-based researchers in gene-editing technology, primarily on biosecurity measures to control and “undo” experimentation with gene editing. There is a focus on organisms such as mosquitos and other dangerous carriers of disease.

Now, emails originating from DARPA and acquired through a Freedom of Information request by the ETC Group –which investigates the impact of new technologies on vulnerable populations – have demonstrated that the US military is truly taking the lead in funding gene-drive experimentation.

The 1,200 emails acquired by the group suggest that DARPA is investing a total of $100 million in the technology. This would make DARPA the world’s largest funder of the technology.

According to DARPA, much of this investment is necessary to study what the consequences of gene drives could be and how to counter any accidental harm that may come from applying the technology outside the laboratory. However, given that DARPA is a military research organisation, there are bound to be concerns that its investment in gene drives could give way to offensive technologies.

“Gene drives are a powerful and dangerous new technology and potential biological weapons could have disastrous impacts on peace, food security and the environment, especially if misused,” said Jim Thomas of the ETC Group in a statement.

“The fact that gene-drive development is now being primarily funded and structured by the US military raises alarming questions about this entire field.”

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity is undergoing a consultation on gene-drive technology, which could result in a moratorium being imposed on gene-drive research in 2018.

According to the collection of emails, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation paid a PR firm $1.6 million to work on gene drives and lobby the UN Convention on Biological Diversity during this consultation. Other stories that have emerged from the emails include that military advisors have undertaken a study into an offensive use of gene drives and that DARPA is funding a UK team of researchers to target communities in Africa with gene-drive mosquitos.

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