Gene-drive research: DARPA lays its bets

By Lucien Crowder | July 25, 2017

Gene drives—essentially, a technique for accelerating the rate at which a genetic mutation spreads through a population—are full of positive potential. They might eliminate malaria, for example, or eradicate invasive species. Then again, gene drives sound absolutely terrifying. Terrorists could misuse them, or organisms altered with gene drives might escape from laboratories, with unpredictable consequences.

Naturally, it’s the terrifying aspects of gene drives that interest US military and intelligence officials. And where there’s interest from the military/intelligence complex, there’s money. As reported by Ewen Callaway of, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (better known by its acronym, DARPA) has become the world’s largest government funder of research into gene drives. Meanwhile, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency (not particularly well known by its acronym, IARPA) is preparing to dispense its own packet of cash. The DARPA and IARPA initiatives will fund research into issues such as how to detect organisms equipped with gene drives, or how to engineer an anti–gene drive that might, for instance, “immunize unaltered wild organisms so they are resistant to a gene drive.”

It’s easy to imagine, if one’s imagination is somewhat fevered, that terrorists or other bad actors might engineer gene drives that could, oh, destroy US corn and wheat crops. But it’s not actually bioterror that keeps experts awake at night. “Bio-error is what I’m worried about,” says Keven Esvelt, an MIT evolutionary engineer quoted in the article. The quotable Esvelt also observes that “[e]very powerful technology is a national security issue.” So hello DARPA, and hello IARPA. Gene-drive researchers are prepared, doubtless with qualms in some cases, to accept your inevitable infusions of cash.

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