Once scientists discovered a way to permanently transform a given population of organisms, it was only a matter of time until governments and militaries started exploring what they could do with the technology.
In 2012, researchers first discovered the technique known as Crispr Cas-9, which makes it possible to create the gene drives that can alter or eliminate all members of a given species—say, malarial mosquitoes or invasive rodents. Now The Guardian has reported that DARPA, the US government agency that researches advanced military technology, is investing $100 million to study gene drives, making it the world’s largest funder of such research.
DARPA had earlier announced investments in gene drive technologies, but the $100 million figure is higher than previously publicly revealed. It comes from emails obtained through open-records requests and publicized by the ETC Group, a Canada-based organization focused on the impact of new technologies.
DARPA, of course, says its goal is strictly defensive. A spokesman told The Guardian, “it is critical for the Department of Defense to defend its personnel and preserve military readiness,” and a gene-drive researcher hired by DARPA, Andrea Crisanti, said his project’s interest was strictly in containing the technology’s undesirable effects. “We have never been asked to consider any application not for the good of eliminating plagues,” the newspaper quotes him as saying.
The Guardian and some advocacy organizations call gene drives “genetic extinction technologies,” a term that emphasizes worst-case scenarios. It’s true that gene drives could in theory wipe out a species; they could also be used to wipe out disease. Last year Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley and Kathleen M. Vogel, writing in The Bulletin, broke down the good, the bad, and the hype surrounding gene drives.