‘Garage scientists’ with access to £100 gene-editing kits pose dangerous threat to society, experts warn
Amateur “garage scientists” toying with powerful gene editing technology could pose a future danger that should not be ignored, experts have warned.
Kits that make it possible to “cut and paste” DNA in living organisms such as yeast and bacteria can already be bought on the internet for around £100.
Using the new technology, known as CRSPR-Cas9, does not require a high level of scientific knowledge, raising concerns that malicious “biohackers” or careless enthusiasts might create something potentially harmful.
The issue was raised in the first part of a major investigation of gene editing by theNuffield Council on Bioethics, an independent body that explores ethical questions raised by advances in biology and medicine.
In its review, the Nuffield Council pointed out that the “comparatively low cost, ease of use and availability” of online gene editing kits meant they were accessible to unregulated amateur users.
A report summary added: “These may include DIY ‘garage’ scientists, school and undergraduate students, and others with an interest in biological research and the possibilities – whether potentially beneficial or harmful – raised by genome editing.”
The report said that since 2014, CRSPR-Cas9 gene editing had been used in a synthetic biology contest for school and university students called the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition.
Last year, a DIY kit that could make Escherichia coli (E.coli) bacteria resistant to the antibiotic streptomycin was on sale for 140 US dollars (£107).
Hugh Whittall, director of the Nuffield Council for Bioethics, said: “There is no evidence that we’ve seen that there are people with things going on in their garages, but … this is one of the things that we need to be aware of, be conscious of the possibility.
“It goes back to this question of whether the control mechanism in terms of the supply of the kits and materials is adequate.”
Nuffield Council member Karen Yeung, Professor of Law and director of the Centre for Technology, Ethics and Law at King’s College London, said: “One of the features of this technology is it makes it more accessible to a broader range of users.
“This however has the knock on effect that it may be more difficult to keep a watching brief and monitor effectively what’s actually being done in these areas.
“We identify that as a potential area of concern.”
CRSPR-Cas9 was introduced in 2012 and is rapidly transforming biological research.
The system uses certain proteins that allow DNA to be cut and edited at precise, targeted locations.
Human reproduction and livestock farming were identified as two key areas of concern by the Nuffield Council. Both will be the subject of further inquiries by dedicated working parties.
In the field of human reproduction, gene editing has the potential to eliminate inherited diseases such as cystic fibrosis.
There are more than 4,000 known single gene conditions that are thought to affect around 1% of births worldwide.
But producing babies from embryos whose inherited DNA has been altered is illegal in the UK. Critics point to the dangers of irreversible changes being passed onto future generations and the possible creation of “designer babies”.
Prof Yeung, who will chair the Nuffield Council working party on reproductive applications, which meets for the first time next week, said: “It is only right that we acknowledge where this new science may lead and explore the possible paths ahead … ”
Genome editing in farm animals has already been proposed for pigs, sheep, cattle and chickens, raising questions of food safety and animal welfare.
Animals whose genes have been edited may fall into a grey legal area because it is not clear that their meat, eggs or milk would be classified as genetically modified food.
Professor John Dupre, from the University of Exeter, who will chair the livestock working party, pointed out there was no way of distinguishing meat from a gene-edited animal and one whose genes had not been edited.
“Genome editing makes verification difficult or impossible,” he said.
Potential applications of the technology included pigs protected against swine flu, chickens that only produced female offspring for egg production, and hornless cattle that could safely be kept in confined spaces.
Dr Andy Greenfield, from Oxford University, who chaired the review working group, dismissed suggestions that farmers might secretly make use of gene editing technology.
He joked: “A kind of evil Old Macdonald? There are entry barriers. It’s not that it’s so easy to do that you can just have a shed at the end of the field.
“It would be difficult to do this secretly. It’s not so quick and easy that it could be happening across Suffolk.”
Dr Greenfield was most concerned about “frivolous” use of CRSPR-Cas9 gene editing.
“We don’t really want to encourage frivolous cosmetic uses of a powerful technology when we have real needs right now,” he said.