CRISPR-Cas9 technology enables scientists to edit the DNA by removing, adding or altering sections of the DNA sequence.
Rampage, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, is a 2018 Hollywood sci-fi monster movie which is slated for Indian release on April 13, 2019. In the film, a biotech company “Energyne” under the guise of researching a cure for diseases, decides to advance CRISPR research to use it as a biological weapon. The pathogens created in the lab transform animals into massive mutants which go on a rampage destroying everything in their path.
CRISPR is an acronym for “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat”. This name refers to the unique organisation of short, partially palindromic repeated DNA sequences found in the genomes of bacteria and other microorganisms. CRISPR is a powerful gene-editing technology that scientists use to change the genetic blueprint of plants and animals and even humans. The joy of CRISPR is that it allows us to edit genes painlessly, across all cell types and species.
For approximately one lakh years of human existence, our human evolution has been shaped by the forces of random mutation and natural selection. All of a sudden we now possess the power of God not only to change our DNA but also the DNA of the generations to come. It’s something beyond our comprehension. It’s also unprecedented in the history of life on earth. How are we humans going to wield this mind-blowing power?
CRISPR-Cas9 technology enables scientists to edit the DNA by removing, adding or altering sections of the DNA sequence. The Cas9 enzyme, which the CRISPR uses, is truly sensational. It’s essentially, a pair of molecular scissors that can cut the two strands of DNA at a specific location in the genome so that bits of DNA can then be added or removed. The Cas9 enzyme uses a piece of RNA called guide RNA (gRNA)about 20 bases long which ‘guides’ Cas9 to the right part of the genome to ensure that Cas9 enzyme cuts the DNA at the right point in the genome and deletes the existing gene sequence. After which, it’s easy to replace the deleted section of DNA with desired genes or nucleotide. The Yunnan laboratory in Kunming, China, is the first lab to tinker with CRISPR on the genome of Macaque monkeys to produce monkeys with purple eyes, orange eyes, or any colour that they want. And the eye colour is only the start. This technology is limitless when it comes to the number and types of genetic alterations it can make.
Gene editing has the potential to cure many genetic illnesses. The human genome is made up of 3.2 billion letters, CRISPR can perform the amazing feat of locating an incorrect letter in the jumble of 3.2 billion nucleotides and snip out the incorrect or the mutated gene leaving the rest intact. For instance, members suffering from sickle-cell anaemia disease of the haemoglobin, have just a single mutation in the gene coding for haemoglobin. Using CRISPR, it shouldn’t be hard to replace that letter in the DNA, curing the millions who suffer from this devastating affliction. CRISPR could even be used to treat HIV/AIDS, either by cutting the virus’s DNA out of a patient’s infected cells or by editing the patient’s DNA so that the cells avoid infection altogether.
With CRISPR there are myriad possibilities. With CRISPR it would be plausible to cure any disease caused by one or a few mutations: not just sickle-cell but Huntington’s disease, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy or colour blindness. Some physicians have already started treating some cancers by appending DNA sequences to the DNA of the immune cells which would help hunt down and destroy malignant tumour forming cells. We could also change the appearance of our children, modifying their hair and eye colour or even, in principle, their height, weight, body shape and intelligence. None of this has been tried in people, but since CRISPR works well in human cell cultures, it seems just a matter of time before CRISPR based therapies become available to all. Gene editing holds the promise of not only life-saving cures but also prevention as well as eradication of diseases in future humans. In November of 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui reported that he’d used the CRISPR tool to edit the embryos of two girls by deleting a gene called CCR5, which allows humans to get AIDS.
CRISPR, a revolutionary gene-editing tool, has its downsides. It’s a significant threat because of its possibility of misuse. Gene editing technologies could be used for development of genetic weapons of mass destruction. The world today is faced with many threats such as terrorism, nuclear escalation, cyber-warfare etc. Beyond all these threats, a global threat assessment report released in 2016 by U.S. director of national intelligence James Clapper placed “genome editing” among six threats listed in the section on weapons of mass destruction.
CRISPR is a double-edged sword. CRISPR could be used to cure almost any human ailment. On the other hand, it could be used to create a killer mosquito or a plague that could wipe out crops or humans. The technology will increase the potential to develop pathogens that express enhanced or unique virulence for which there may be no known effective treatment for infected persons or animals. Or terrorists could create a virus that kills humans by sniping-out important segments of people’s DNA, at the molecular level.”There is a great danger of amateur terrorists, non-state actors such as ISIS, or rogue states such as North Korea, laying their hands on it and using the technology to create a bioweapon such as the earth has never seen.
The most intimidating and cataclysmic thing about CRISPR is that it’s not just a one-time event. The damage is not confined to a particular area or time. For instance, when suicide bombers explode themselves or when an explosive-laden vehicle rams into a bus full of people like they did recently at Pulwama, India, the fatalities and devastation are contained to the area around the explosion. On the other hand, when a gene is modified in a plant, animal, or a person, that modification is not restricted to that one living thing. The mutations of the gene are inherited, not just by their children, but also by the future offspring of the children. CRISPR technology can genetically alter every future generation, to the end of the species. Besides, bio-terror attacks, unlike nuclear and chemical weapons, are not confined to a limited area; they spread worldwide and have worldwide ramifications.
A couple of years ago, it would have been tough for an individual to engineer a bio-weapon and carry out an attack single-handedly. However, that is changing at an accelerated pace. The question which is ripe and appropriate to be asked now would be - Who is going to develop it first? A terrorist group? A rogue nation? Or an insane psychopath? The question is not even of “if “? It’s about when?
It takes months or years to produce nuclear weapons. One would need radioactive materials, expensive reactors, breeders, centrifuges etc. But for a bio-weapon, all one needs is some knowledge and a lab.
CRISPR/Cas9 tool is robust, accurate and easy to use. It’s way cheaper and faster. Now any Tom Dick and Harry or a terrorist can order an online CRISPR-gene-editing kit for a couple of hundred dollars, or even $60. It’s everywhere and it’s not being outlawed in western nations as doing so would move the manufacture of CRISPR-kit overseas to other countries. Which means a terrorist or radical groups would not find it difficult to establish a CRISPR infrastructure. As many labs worldwide are working on CRISPR, without any biosafety norms, there is also a risk of accidental release of engineered pathogens.
You don’t need to have a psychopath going on a rampage killing people or have suicide bombers going berserk. A bioterrorist could take a regular virus’s DNA and program it to disrupt or repress all or any cell functions. Thereby engineer a bio-weapon which could create any desired impact. For instance, he could choose to make the male or female population of a particular race or class of people or the entire world to lose the capacity to reproduce, or he may introduce a virus which would turn the whole male population into gays by bringing about changes in the genome.
A bio-terrorist would be able to accomplish such a task without having to kill a single human. This type of bio-terror event would not be known at least for a decade or two, and nobody would ever know who perpetrated the attack as there would be no clues. Some smart group could also make a vaccine for themselves and their offspring, and let loose a bio-weapon to wipe out a particular community or the entire human race. Today the biggest threat to humans is therefore hidden in our genome. And the advancements in the field are showing that our genomes are like a bomb which are waiting to be triggered by an unseen bio-weapon.
The motivation for a bioterrorist to carry out acts of bioterror stems from a consciousness of ignorance. Human consciousness must first change on an individual level before broader social changes can take place in this world. The Dalai Lama said, “If we taught every eight-year-old to meditate, we would end the war in one generation.” Laws can’t control violence, governments can’t prevent it, nor can wars stop it, because violence or terrorism of any kind starts in the consciousness of the individual, lost in the ignorance of separation.
Dr K.Jayanth Murali, an IPS officer, is Director DVAC, Chennai