Benefits & Risks of Biotechnology

Over the past decade, progress in biotechnology has accelerated rapidly. We are poised to enter a period of dramatic change, in which the genetic modification of existing organisms — or the creation of new ones — will become effective, inexpensive, and pervasive.

Biotech Trends

These past ten years have seen the cost of sequencing a human genome plummet, dropping from ~$10M USD to ~$1000, while the challenges of genome sequencing have also declined significantly. Accumulation of large data sets of medical and genetic information will provide an ever-increasing ability to understand and modify our own genome and that of other creatures.

In parallel, a major recent advance in genetic engineering has occurred with the discovery of CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), a bacterial DNA sequence that codes for a protein (Cas9) and RNA combination that can locate a specific DNA sequence and splice the DNA strand at that location. This enables [dramatically simplified genetic editing and engineering] relative to earlier recombinant DNA technologies.

The CRISPR system has been used successfully in complex organisms including adult mice and even embryonic humans.  As the technique can change the genome of a mature creature, it can in principle be used therapeutically to treat genetic conditions, and clinical trials in humans may be just a few years away.  Researchers have also proposed “gene drives” that spread a genetic modification through a population in the wild, so as to (for example) make mice immune to Lyme disease, or make mosquitos unable to transmit Malaria.

DNA_petri_dish

 It is easy to imagine this capability leading to powerful treatments for — or even elimination of — many genetic diseases, cancers and other illnesses, as well as a reduction or eradication of pathogens, dramatically improved food crops, organisms engineered to clean up degraded environments, and many other hugely beneficial biotechnologies. 

Biotech Risks

Unfortunately, it is just as easy to imagine major dangers. Gene drives may upend existing ecosystems in unforeseen ways. Modification of humans could open a Pandora’s box, altering the very meaning of humanity. Perhaps most alarming is that a clear understanding — and easy re-engineering — of human pathogens could lead to deliberate or accidental release of hugely destructive pathogens.  

Scientists performing “gain of function” research have, for example, introduced mutations to the H5N1 virus to make it airborne. Though the intention of such research is to predict and prepare for adverse mutations that may occur naturally, developing these organisms creates the risk of accidental release, and publishing the techniques could provide a blueprint for others to make dangerous modifications to organisms.  

Deliberately engineered pathogens could be given properties that make them even more dangerous than naturally occurring ones.  While such abilities are currently limited to high-end labs run by top researchers, the necessary technology and understanding is rapidly becoming cheaper and more widespread, leading to serious risks of accidental release.  Worse yet, if the set of people with access to such technology and understanding begins to overlap with groups of radical ideology who are willing to use such extreme measures, the results could be devastating unless effective countermeasures are developed first.

 

Recommended References

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These organizations above all work on biotechnology issues, though many cover other topics as well. This list is undoubtedly incomplete; please contact us to suggest additions or corrections.