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The (Possible) “Dark Side” of Gene Editing Technologies

By Shelly Simana

Gene editing technologies enable people to directly change their DNA sequence by adding, removing, or replacing DNA bases. Today, for the first time, as Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg announced in their book, A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution, people “possess the ability to edit not only the DNA of every living human but also the DNA of future generations” (p. xvi). The emergence of new gene editing tools, such as CRISPR-Cas9prime editing, and dubbed SATI, has led to momentous advances in biotechnology as the new tools make gene editing faster, easier, less expensive, and more precise than ever before.

While gene editing technologies offer great promise, they may also introduce risks with far-reaching consequences. This post focuses on the possible “dark side” of gene editing technologies and addresses some threats that the technologies might pose to human lives. While nowadays some of those risks would be deemed “science fiction,” they should be in the back of our minds as we ponder the potential impact of gene editing technologies.

Gene Editing as a Weapon of Mass Destruction

The United States Intelligence Community’s 2016 Worldwide Threat Assessment report defined gene editing as a “weapon of mass destruction and proliferation.” The report notes:

…research in genome editing conducted by countries with different regulatory or ethical standards than those of Western countries probably increases the risk of the creation of potentially harmful biological agents or products … [genome editing technologies] deliberate or unintentional misuse might lead to far-reaching economic and national security implications.

With gene drive technology, which has the ability to change the odds of inheriting a particular DNA sequence, it is possible to imagine a virus, or a “harmful mosquito,” which is designed to hurt people by altering their genes. While we have not (yet) witnessed widespread destruction caused by gene editing technologies, the ideological differences between some countries regarding the development and use of the technologies exist. In two recent cases an ethical line imposed by the global scientific community was breached; in 2018, He Jiankui, a Chinese scientist, released a video announcing that he had “created” the world’s first genetically modified babies, engineered to protect them from HIV. In 2019, Denis Rebrikov, a Russian geneticist, announced his plan to become the second scientist to create genetically modified babies. Rebrikov’s goal is to treat inherited deafness.

The Potential to Target Groups

Over the past several decades, advances in genetic testing have led to the discovery that it is possible to trace Jewish ancestry and specific carriers of mutations that are more common among Jews (it should be emphasized that there is no such thing as a “Jewish gene”). Jews are perhaps not alone in this regard; many other populations may share genetic characteristics. Thus, gene editing technologies might intentionally be used as a “negative enhancement” tool against specific groups.

The Potential to Target Individuals

The new developments in gene editing technologies might pave the way to an entirely new kind of “personal warfare.” It is not far-fetched to imagine a scenario where a prospective attacker would collect and grow live cells from a targeted person and, eventually, build a personally-targeted tool against him or her. Perhaps an easier way to collect genetic information would be through “gene-hacking.” It is likely that, in the future, there will be massive genetic databases. Like other databases, genetic databases will not be immune from cyber-attacks. Instead of trying to collect information from a tissue or a strand of hair that a particular person has left behind, gene-hackers will be able to collect genetic information by hacking into a database and then using it for illegitimate purposes.

Demographic Design

Thus far, several governments have implemented population control policies. Possibly the most famous one is China’s one-child policy, which was introduced during the late 1970s. It is possible to think of a scenario in which governments will use gene editing technologies in order to control the population within their borders. This risk invokes Foucault’s concept of “biopolitics,” according to which states exercise power to allow life or death and to define and manage life itself. “For millennia, man remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for a political existence,” so Foucault argued in the History of Sexuality, “modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question.”

The Nobel Prize winner James Watson once said, “we used to think our fate was in our stars. Now we know, in large measure, our fate is in our genes.” While I tend to disagree with such a determinist view, there is no doubt that the decoding of the human genome makes available an ever-growing body of knowledge on the structure and function of our genes. Gene editing technologies have the potential to yield important insights regarding fundamental biological processes and their influence on human health and well-being. Yet, with these opportunities come significant ethical and legal challenges and it is imperative that we address gene editing technologies and possible repercussions of their use.

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