When you hear the word terrorist, you may imagine bombs, maniacal suicide attackers, or violent hate groups. While all this may be true, recent scientific advances have allowed terror organizations to expand their arsenal of weapons. James Clapper, US Director of National Intelligence, added gene editing to a list of threats posed by “weapons of mass destruction and proliferation.” Gene editing’s most popular method, CRISPR, has revolutionized scientific research, leading to new animal and crop gene modifications. Genome editing is a type of genetic engineering which involves adding, removing, or replacing DNA in the genome of a living organism. By delivering the Cas9 nuclease complexed with a synthetic guide RNA into a cell, the cell’s genome can be cut at a desired location, allowing existing genes to be removed or new ones to be added.
Clapper’s report cited “the broad distribution, low cost, and accelerated pace of development of [CRISPR]” as reasons why the intelligence community is nervous about it’s misuse. Basic CRISPR ingredients can be bought online for $60, allowing the next person with access to a library and malicious intent to potentially craft the next Ebola. Research in genome editing among countries that have different ethical or regulatory standards than the US increases the risk of the creation of harmful biological agents. While Clapper might not have laid out any specific scenarios, scientists have speculated that CRISPR could be used to make “killer mosquitos” diseases that wipe out staple crops, or even a virus that can snip people’s DNA. The potential to develop a pathogen with robust capabilities has not been ruled out. Genetically engineering a disease with a resistance to anti-biotics can render traditional pandemic defenses ineffective. The intelligence assessment also drew attention to the possibility of editing human embryos to produce changes in the next generation of people. The report did not include how that could be utilized as a WMD but it is possible to imagine a virus that could kill or hurt people by altering their genomes. Development of bioweapons was banned by the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention, a Cold-War era accord that outlawed biological warfare programs. The US, China, Russia, and 172 other countries have all signed the treaty. Despite this, the Islamic State wants to get in the game. As the group continues to lose territory in Iraq and Syria, it will become even more determined to use all the tools at its disposal. A laptop captured in 2014 contained a 19-page document on how to weaponized bubonic plague from infected animals. Modern terror techniques in a post-9/11 world continue to advance along with scientific progress. So called “dual use” technologies can both help to create more resilient plants and vaccines while simultaneously be utilized for killing.
Not all hope is lost, however. Other prominent experts criticize Clapper for his potentially rash and uneducated decision. A popular example of bioterror failing can be seen in Japan when a cult made a form of anthrax and released it in a populated city. No one died. The ease of obtaining such weapons has also been called into question, as developing a legitimate disease may be outside of the realm of general knowledge, even with the right tools. Many experts say that terrorists should just stick with normal bombs if they want to maximize their killing techniques. The example of CRISPR as a bioweapon calls into question the role science and gene manipulation can play in our lives. Not all technologies are as benign as making crops more mosquito resistant, and as people venture further into the realm of genetic experimentation, many ethical and practical questions are raised.