As do-it-yourself gene editing gains popularity, ‘someone is going to get hurt’
AS A teenager, Keoni Gandall already was operating a cutting-edge research laboratory in his bedroom in Huntington Beach, California.
“I just wanted to clone DNA using my automated lab robot and feasibly make full genomes at home,” he said.
Gandall was far from alone. In the past few years, so-called biohackers across the US have taken gene editing into their own hands. As the equipment becomes cheaper and the expertise in gene-editing techniques, mostly Crispr-cas9, more widely shared, citizenscientists are attempting to re-engineer DNA in surprising ways.
Until now, the work has amounted to little more than DIY misfires. In a recent interview, Gandall, now 18 and a research fellow at Stanford, said he only wants to ensure open access to gene-editing technol- ogy, believing future biotech discoveries may come from the least expected minds.
But he is quick to acknowledge that the do-it-yourself genetics revolution one day may go catastrophically wrong.
“Even I would tell you, the level of DNA synthesis regulation, it simply isn’t good enough,” Gandall said. “These regulations aren’t going to work when everything is decentralised — when everybody has a DNA synthesiser on their smartphone.”
The most pressing worry is that someone somewhere will use the spreading technology to create a bioweapon.
Already a research team at the University of Alberta has recreated from scratch an extinct relative of smallpox, horsepox, by stitching together fragments of mail-order DNA in just six months for about $100,000 — without a glance from law enforcement officials.
The team purchased overlapping DNA fragments from a commercial company. Once the researchers glued the full genome together and introduced it into cells infected by another type of poxvirus, the cells began to produce infectious particles.
To some experts, the experiment nullified a decades-long debate over whether to destroy the world’s two remaining smallpox remnants — at the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and at a research centre in Russia — since it proved that scientists who want to experiment with the virus can now create it themselves.
The study’s publication in the journal PLOS One included an in-depth description of the methods used and — most alarming to Gregory D. Koblentz, the director of the biodefense graduate programme at George Mason University — a series of new tips and tricks for bypassing roadblocks.
“Sure, we’ve known this could be possible,” Koblentz said.
Experts urged the journal to cancel publication of the article, one calling it “unwise, unjustified, and dangerous.” Even before publication, a report from a World Health Organisation meeting noted that the endeavour “did not require exceptional biochemical knowledge or skills, significant funds or significant time.”
But the study’s lead researcher, David Evans, a virologist at the University of Alberta, said he had alerted several Canadian government authorities to his poxvirus venture, and none had raised an objection.
Potential for abuse
Many experts agree that it would be difficult for amateur biologists of any stripe to design a killer virus on their own. But as more hackers trade computer code for the genetic kind, and as their skills become increasingly sophisticated, health security experts fear that the potential for abuse may be growing.
“To unleash something deadly, that could really happen any day now — today,” said George Church, a researcher at Harvard and a leading synthetic biologist. “The pragmatic people would just engineer drug-resistant anthrax or highly transmissible influenza. Some recipes are online.”
“Anyone who does synthetic biology should be under surveillance, and anyone who does it without a licence should be suspect.”
Authorities in the US have been hesitant to undertake actions that could squelch innovation or impinge on intellectual property. The laws that cover biotechnology have not been significantly updated in decades, forcing regulators to rely on outdated frameworks to govern new technologies.
The cobbled-together regulatory system, with multiple agencies overseeing various types of research, has left gaps that will only widen as the technologies advance.
Academic researchers undergo strict scrutiny when they seek federal funding for “dual-use research of concern”: experiments that, in theory, could be used for good or ill.
In 2013, a quest to create a glowing plant via genetic engineering drew almost half a million dollars through Kickstarter, the crowdfunding website.
“There really isn’t a national governance per se for those who are not federally or government funded,” said William So, a biological countermeasures specialist at the FBI.
Instead, So said, the agency relies on biohackers themselves to sound the alarm regarding suspicious behaviour.
“I do believe the FBI is doing their best with what they have,” said Dr Thomas V. Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore. “But if you really want to do this, there isn’t a whole lot stopping you.”
The FBI has befriended many white-hat biohacking labs, among them Genspace in New York City. Behind an inconspicuous steel door on a gritty, graffiti-lined street, biohackers-in-training — musicians, engineers, retirees — routinely gather for crash courses in genetic engineering.
Participants in “Biohacker Boot Camp” learn basic technical skills to use in homegrown genetics projects, like concocting algae that glows.
Daniel Grushkin, a founder of Genspace, has become a trailblazer in biohacking risk management, in part because he recognises that letting neophytes manipulate live organisms is “less like a ‘hackerspace,’ more like a pet store.”
He has posted community guidelines, forbidden infectious agents in the lab, and accepted a grant of almost $500,000 to design security practices for some four dozen similar labs across the country.
If nefarious biohackers were to create a biological weapon from scratch — a killer that would bounce from host to host to host, capable of reaching millions of people, unrestrained by time or distance — they would probably begin with some online shopping.
Gandall’s mission at Stanford is to build a body of genetic material for public use. To his fellow biohackers, it’s a noble endeavour. To biosecurity experts, it’s tossing ammunition into trigger-happy hands.
“There are really only two things that could wipe 30 million people off of the planet: A nuclear weapon, or a biological one,” said Lawrence O. Gostin, an adviser on pandemic influenza preparedness to the World Health Organisation.
“Somehow, the US government fears and prepares for the former, but not remotely for the latter. It baffles me.”