With the ability to alter entire populations of living animals at a genetic level, the scope of what is known as gene drive technology is huge. But a freedom of information request has shown that the world’s largest funder of this developing tech is the US military agency DARPA, with many raising concerns as to why they are so interested in it.
The emails released show that the US military has invested $100 million in the technology, which has the potential to drive species locally, or even globally, extinct by manipulating the frequency of certain genes in their DNA. The discovery of this has increased the demand for more regulation in this field, as the UN Convention on Biological Diversity prepares to debate a moratorium on gene drives next year, until the tech can be effectively moderated.
The whole idea of gene drives is nothing new, with biologists theorizing about them for at least half a century. What has changed in recent years, however, is the advent of the technique known as CRISPR.
This has pushed the idea of gene drives away from theory and one step closer to reality. The ability to be able to easily and accurately manipulate an organism's DNA means that we have the technological ability, on paper at least, to shift the chance of a specific gene that we chose being passed on to the next generation from 50 percent as is natural, to near 100 percent.
This is the basis of the gene drive, and the potential power of such a tool is difficult to overemphasize.
To date, there have been no synthetic gene drives released on wild populations, although there is an increasing number of papers investigating their use, specifically when it comes to eradicating malaria-carrying mosquitos. This is how many have imagined it being used, but even then the ecological impacts of such widespread genetic manipulation of wild creatures are still not understood.
The US military has a long history of being interested in ways to alter the environment to its own advantage. You only have to think back to Operation Ranch Hand during the Vietnam War, in which the herbicide and defoliant Agent Orange was sprayed over vast tracts of agricultural land and forests to flush out the Viet Cong. The prospect of using gene drives as a biological weapon is of serious concern to many scientists and governments.
The fact that much of the funding for this new technology is coming from the military is to the dismay of many who think that the funding source is tarnishing a technique that has the potential to do an unbelievable amount of good.