We have explored the possibility of technology being used to wipe out malaria-carrying mosquitos or other pests, but now the UN has expressed fears of their own. 

The Guardian writes, after concerns over possible military uses and unintended consequences, emails released under freedom of information rules, have confirmed that a US military agency is investing $100 million in genetic extinction technologies. 

The documents continue to suggest that the US’s secretive Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) has become the world’s largest funder of “gene drive” research and will raise tensions ahead of a UN expert committee meeting next week. 

With fears rising over the consequences of genetic extinction technologies in bioweapons, some UN experts are particularly concerned with some of the potential unintended consequences. 

One said, “You may be able to remove viruses or the entire mosquito population, but that may also have downstream ecological effects on species that depend on them.

“My main worry is that we do something irreversible to the environment, despite our good intentions, before we fully appreciate the way that this technology will work.”

Jim Thomas, a co-director of the ETC group who obtained the emails, added, “The dual use nature of altering and eradicating entire populations is as much a threat to peace and food security as it is a threat to ecosystems. Militarisation of gene drive funding may even contravene the Enmod convention against hostile uses of environmental modification technologies.”

Between 2008 and 2014, the US government spent approximately $820m on synthetic biology. Since 2012, most of this has come from Darpa and other military agencies. 

New Gene Editing Technique to Drive Out Mosquito-Borne Disease

Todd Kuiken, who has worked with the GBIRd programme, which receives $6.4m from Darpa, explained, “Darpa is not and should not be the only funder of gene-editing research but it is critical for the Department of Defense to defend its personnel and preserve military readiness.”

The organisation believes that a dramatic fall in the costs of gene-editing tool kits has created more of an opportunity for hostile actors to experiment with the technology. 

The official continued, “This convergence of low cost and high availability means that applications for gene editing – both positive and negative – could arise from people or states operating outside of the traditional scientific community and international norms. It is incumbent on Darpa to perform this research and develop technologies that can protect against accidental and intentional misuse.”

However, Andrea Crisanti, a professor at Imperial College London who has pioneered gene drive research, squashes claims that research could be channeled towards bioweapons, by branding them “all fantasy.”

He added, “There is no way that this technology could be used for any military purpose. The general interest is in developing systems to contain the undesired effects of gene drives. We have never been asked to consider any application not for the good of eliminating plagues.”

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