If a tanker splits its hull and dumps oil into the sea, trained teams show up with specialized gear to begin the process of stanching the flow and cleaning up the spill. Today, there’s no equivalent team or tools for resolving a “spill” of genetic material into the environment, but that could soon change.
Over the next four years a new program in the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) plans to cultivate, among other things, a kind of cleanup crew for engineered genes deemed harmful to or undesirable in an ecosystem. The initiative, called Safe Genes, comes at a time when so-called “gene drive” systems, which override the standard rules of gene inheritance and natural selection, are raising hopes among some scientists that the technology could alter or suppress populations of disease-carrying insects or other pests in as few as 20 generations.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation sees so much promise in gene drive technology that it plans to double spending on its Target Malaria initiative, which aims to create systems for driving genes in two species of malaria mosquitoes, to $70 million. Yet without careful precautions, a gene drive released into the wild could spread or change in unexpected ways. Kevin Esvelt, head of the Sculpting Evolution lab at MIT Media Lab, which is applying for Safe Genes funding in collaboration with eight other research groups, predicts that eventually, perhaps around 15 years from now, an accident will allow a drive with potential to spread globally to escape laboratory controls. “It’s not going to be bioterror,” he says, “it’s going to be ‘bioerror.’”
DARPA itself has been one of the largest public funders of synthetic biology research in the U.S. in recent years, upping its spending on synthetic biology projects to more than $100 million in 2014 from nothing in 2010, according to one analysis. The agency announced its Safe Genes program in September 2016 and plans to award funding to multiple research teams by the first half of 2017. “If we’re going to be really bullish about genome engineering,” says DARPA program manager Renee Wegrzyn, “we need to be just as aggressive with tools to reverse those changes.”