Pentagon revealed as top funder of controversial gene editing tech
Over 1,200 emails obtained through a freedom of information request by the ETC Group, a research and advocacy organization that focuses on ecological and agricultural issues, shed new light on gene drive research conducted by the shadowy Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
The US Department of Defense has pumped at least $100 million into a controversial technology known as “gene drives” – $35 million more than previously reported – making the US military the top funder and developer of the gene-modifying tech.
The technology is capable of splicing DNA strands in order to insert, alter, or remove targeted traits, and “drive” them through a population by ensuring all the offspring of the targeted organism inherit the alteration. Proponents of the gene-editing technology say it can be used to wipe out malaria-spreading mosquitoes, for example. Critics point out that the method could have unforeseen environmental consequences.
“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,” the Guardian cited one UN official as saying.
ETC officials warned of the dangers the technology could pose if repurposed as a biological weapon.
“Gene drives are a powerful and dangerous new technology and potential biological weapons could have disastrous impacts on peace, food security and the environment, especially if misused,” said Jim Thomas, co-director of ETC Group. “The fact that gene drive development is now being primarily funded and structured by the US military raises alarming questions about this entire field.”
The emails also revealed that a group of US military advisers have conducted two classified studies on genome editing and gene drives. The secret research, which focused on the potential military application of gene drive technology and use of gene drives in agriculture, included outside input from a Monsanto executive.
Gene drive promotion and development has also received assistance from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation gave $1.6 million to the public relations firm Emerging Ag to exert influence on the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the key body for gene drive governance.
Following calls in 2016 for a global moratorium on the use of gene drive technology, the CBD sought input from scientists and experts in an online forum. According to emails obtained by ETC Group, Emerging Ag recruited more than 65 experts, including a Gates Foundation senior official, a DARPA official, and scientists who had received DARPA funding, in an attempt to covertly influence the UN body.
A UN moratorium on the controversial technology would halt DARPA’s plan to test genetically-modified mosquitoes in Africa.
“While claiming potential health benefits, any application of such powerful technologies should be subject to the highest standards of transparency and disclosure. Sadly, this doesn’t appear to be the case,” Mariam Mayet, executive director of the African Centre for Biodiversity, told ETC. “Releasing risky GM organisms into the environments of these African countries is outrageous and deeply worrying.”
DARPA is no stranger to meddling with mother nature. In November, the military research agency announced plans to genetically engineer plant-based sensors as battlefield surveillance tech.