DIY ‘garage’ scientists could unleash genetically-edited organisms into wild, warn experts

Garage scientists’ could unleash dangerous genetically-modified organisms into the environment using unregulated technology which is already available online, a new report has warned. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics said that chemistry kits which allow genetic editing can already be bought online for under £100. Scientists are concerned that a new technique, called Crispr, is now so cheap and widely available that amateurs will start experimenting at home, or in school labs. The technique works like genetic scissors to cut away DNA code and replace it with new genes. It has been hailed as one the most significant scientific breakthroughs in recent years, with enthusiasts claiming that it could wipe out inherited diseases like cystic fibrosis and produce crops which are resistant to drought or pests. Yet there are fears that, in the wrong hands, the procedure could unleash dangerous strains of bacteria or other organisms. Others worry it may usher in a future of eugenics, with wealthy parents selecting for beneficial traits. Announcing preliminary findings, the council said: “The comparatively low cost and ease of use of the Crispr system has made it feasible for a greater range of users, beyond those who would ordinarily make use of the techniques of molecular biology. “DIY or garage biologists, biohackers and enthusiastic amateurs carrying out informal research or making biological products. It is possible for individuals to pursue this interest in private homes using kits that are available to order online. “Genetically altered organisms present a theoretical risk of harm to those handling them, and if they escape or are released from laboratories or controlled environments, to other people and natural ecosystems.” The scientists said that a kit to make E.coli resistant to antibiotics was already for sale on the internet. The panel is launching two reviews looking into the ethical implications of genome editing both for human health and animals. The report warned that widespread use of genome editing could allow the spread of ‘consumer’ eugenics and ‘engineering humans with desirable genetic traits’ to suit environmental conditions or enhance athletic ability. Karen Yeung, Professor of Law at Kings College London said: “Many people have concerns about the possible use of genome editing in human reproduction, for example concerns about making genetic changes that would be passed on to future generations and the possibility of the techniques being used to confer other desirable characteristics. It is conceivable that it could be put to use for malign purposes. “We’ve identified human reproductive applications as an area that demands urgent ethical scrutiny and we would think carefully how to respond to this possibility now well before it becomes a practical tool.” Crispr, which stands for Clustered, Regularly Interspaced, Short Palindromic Repeat, is a naturally-occurring defence mechanism used by bacteria. Bacteria carry in their DNA strands of genetic code belonging to viruses so that they can recognise them when they come near. When they spot a virus they release an enzyme which attacks, snipping away this area of code. Scientists have harnessed this mechanism to use as a kind of ‘molecular scissors’ which removes mutated areas of DNA. Panel member Dr Andy Greenfield, of the Medical Research Council (MRC) and Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), added: “It is conceivable that it could be put to use for malign purposes. We have identified a number of ethical concerns. “This is a potentially transformative technology and could transform our range of ambitions about how humans control our world.”

The Telegraph, 30 September 2016 ; ;