The capacity of “bad actors” to create and use DNA-targeted bioweapons is in the limelight following comments from US Rep Jason Crow at last week’s Aspen Security Forum, which openly flagged the technology as a key risk for the international community.
While the likes of Vladimir Putin have long espoused the possibility that such weapons might be being used, this is the first time that Western officials, specifically members of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, have formally addressed the risk in such a forthright and public way. As Crow told the panel (TBS emphasis):
His comments were as follows (TBS emphasis):
To be clear I think one of the things we’re talking about here is that there are now weapons under development and developed that are designed to target specific people. That’s what this is.
Where you can actually take someone’s DNA, take their their medical profile and you can target a biological weapon that will kill that person or take them off the battlefield or make them inoperable.so you can’t have a discussion about this without talking about privacy and commercial data in the protection of you can’t have a discussion about this without talking about privacy and the protection of commercial data because expectations of privacy have degraded over the last 20 years.
You know young folks actually have very little expectation of privacy that’s what the polling and the data show and people will very rapidly spit into a cup and send it into 23andme and get really interesting data about their background, and guess what their DNA is now owned by a private company and can be sold off without with very little intellectual property protection or privacy protection. And we don’t have legal and regulatory regimes to deal with that.
So we have to have an open and public discussion and this is going to have to be a political discussion about what does the protection of health care information DNA information and your data look like because that data is actually going to be procured and collected by our adversaries for the development of these systems.
Before I left the Financial Times in January, I wrote a Big Read piece about exactly these sorts of biological weapon dangers. The piece wasn’t focused on DNA-tuned weapons per se, rather on the ease with which rogue actors — both state and non-state — could access bioweapon technology due to diminishing barriers of entry in the field. But the research opened my eyes to the broad category of biological dangers we are facing.
For now, any such activity would constitute a breach of the biological weapons convention (BWC). The bad news is that the BWC, as I’ve written about before, is far from a foolproof system. It is particularly badly equipped for dealing with non-state actors. Six months of exclusive research into the topic has shown me that the way we supervise and control for the development of biological weapons is no longer fit for purpose given the speed with which technological developments are currently occuring in the field. Key amongst the issues is that any protocol adjustment requires diplomacy and consensus-creation, which can be an incredibly slow process.
In the next few weeks I plan to return to the topic of biological weapons inspection and supervision. In the meantime, given the above developments, I thought it would be useful to publish my interview with Harvard Medical School geneticist George Church, a top-tier name in the field of genetic research. The conversation took place on February 9, 2022 but publication was derailed by the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
The interview was conducted in the scope of my collaboration with Paul Dabrowa’s LifeBioHack podcast — Dabrowa being one of the biohackers I interviewed for the original Financial Times biohacker piece linked above. The below is an edited account of the conversation.
While it is not specifically focused on DNA-tuned bioweapons it provides a good primer on scientific developments in the field.
Paul Dabrowa: Dr. George Church is one of the most creative and out-of-the-box thinkers I’ve ever met. I first spoke to him about 13 years ago, when I randomly called him on the phone and asked him for advice. As a scientist, he’s been a leader in the field of synthetic biology, has pioneered new methods of gene sequencing, and most recently led to the use of CRISPR technology for genetic modification. His organisation holds one of the fundamental patents for this technique. He’s helping redefine what we mean by life itself. So without further ado, hello, George and thanks for joining us.
George Church: Oh, my pleasure.
Paul Dabrowa: What led you to science? What led you to genetics?
George Church: Well, I wasn’t exactly surrounded by it. The fact is, until I really left home, I didn’t get much science. I went away to school around 14 years old. And they didn’t even teach science at all until seventh grade. And none of my parents or friends were scientists or engineers. I think I just got a strange attraction during the World’s Fair in 1964. When we went up to New York for it. I also got a little exposure through books, you know, biographies of Madame Curie and Luther Burbank, Washington Carver. And, I just would do experiments spontaneously and I was mildly dyslexic. So I would read picture books on science and nature timeline series that made a big impression on me. That was the beginning. But then genetics up came later. I kind of was interested in everything, but through crystallography, I got interested in genetics.
Paul Dabrowa: So George, synthetic biology — that’s literally creating man-made life forms. Tell us a little bit about that and what attracted you to that? Do you like making your own life forms?
George Church: Yeah, so I mean, synthetic biology is a small variation on genetic engineering and recombinant DNA coding. Going back to the 70s and I was attracted to that from far away to the microbiology revolution, which had a small component to it that was genetics, which was making mutants, but then recombinant DNA allowed us to really exchange between species. And then synthetic biology was more of an engineering principle.
Paul Dabrowa: So what exactly is synthetic biology? And what are the implications in terms of benefiting humanity, and maybe some of the dangers?
George Church: I tend to be more of a lumper than a splitter. So I lump into synthetic biology, basically, anything you can do with advanced microbiology tools, engineering, genomes, evolution, lab evolution in a lab. Basically, it’s like synthetic chemistry is to chemistry. But it has a very solid engineering component. So safety engineering, interoperable parts, testing and kind of keeping track of the properties of modular components.
So if you want to make a cell or an organism, that is different from its ancestors, you can extract DNA or synthesise DNA chemically, build it the way a computer can help you build a car from first ideas, you can build DNA, and the difference is that DNA will indirectly programme the cells to do a variety of chemistries, or even develop forms, shapes that are characteristic of what you programmed it to do, this would be quite different from what the ancestral DNA programmed it to do.
Paul Dabrowa: So it’s sort of a situation where you would like an organism to do something, and you can edit that organism in order to produce the results that you need? So for example, I mean, you’ve talked a little bit about how it’s possible to edit life forms, so that they could capture carbon by making plastics and things like that or make fuels from eating right?
George Church: You can change the metabolism rather radically. There are some limits to the chemistry that you can do at room temperature essentially — the narrow range of temperatures that life grows in and the narrow range of pressures and things like that. But within those boundaries, you can make just about any chemical that would be of health consequence or agricultural consequence or quite a variety of pigments, flavours, fragrances, and so on.
Paul Dabrowa: So fast forward to say 15 years time or 20 years time what type of applications do you think will be will be using this technology? In terms of someone’s daily life? You wake up in the morning? What type of things will people see that’s different now to what we’re doing now, in terms of synthetic biology?
George Church: Well, depending on how broadly you include synthetic biology, you might say it’s already in, in your everyday life if you use insulin, that’s something that’s a human gene has been moved into a bacterium which is very unusual human gene for insulin. Now the bacterium overproduces insulin, you purify it and you dispense it the way we used to get pig insulin which wasn’t particularly good. If one takes one older example we are seeing the first organs that are transplanted from pigs to humans — where maybe a dozen changes have been made for the genome to make them immune compatible, the vaccines that we take are a form of gene therapy where you’ve got either a viral capsid, including the DNA from a completely different virus, or you can have something that’s not even a virus, it’s just a lipid nanoparticle that’s kind of a membranous, coding for messenger RNA, that is completely synthetic. So these are things that very much affect our everyday life. Synthetic biology has been used to make a lot of the diagnostic kits that were used during the COVID-19 crisis.
Izabella Kaminska: I was quite intrigued to hear that you described the vaccines as gene therapy because I feel there’s been a bit of confusion in the public space about that. I’ve personally seen people who are calling it gene therapy be dismissed as conspiracy theorists. So I was just wondering is it fair to call it gene therapy or not?
George Church: The four top vaccines, AstraZeneca, Sputnik, Pfizer, and Moderna are single genes, typically synthetic, that are encapsulated in the same way you encapsulate a gene therapy, all four of those. And the methods are exactly the methods you would use for curing a genetic disease. The subtle difference is that the gene is expressed in, say, an intramuscular injection — and is expressed into a spike protein, and you have an immune response that amplifies it slightly, most of your classical gene therapies for say, curing rare diseases don’t get that amplification. But I think there’s more similarities than there are differences. It’s not a conspiracy theory. I mean, gene therapies are good for you. And vaccines are good for you. And so I don’t see how it’s, it’s a negative.
Izabella Kaminska: I mean, I don’t either. I just found it quite interesting that that topic was so inflamed on the internet, but that’s interesting to hear from an expert. My other question is that from a lay perspective, what you are talking about kind of conjures up these visions of Dr. Moreau. What do you say to people who are more concerned about the dangers of messing with all these genetic organisms?
George Church: Well, I think that I try not to be arbitrarily reassuring. I think people should be concerned, at least briefly. But it is the job of the Food and Drug Administration and similar agencies around the world have oversight into safety and efficacy of all drugs. So all drugs have the potential of doing harm, until they’re proven otherwise. And so you shouldn’t be arbitrarily reassured by something that hasn’t been through the FDA approval process. But they are certainly like the island Dr. Moreau, except he didn’t have FDA approval for what he did. And we are transplanting organs, from pigs to humans, we’re transplanting genes from humans to bacteria, and then back to humans again. So, it is like that. We don’t need to sugarcoat that but all you need to do is ask what the outcomes are. I mean, the mechanism shouldn’t be quite as important as the as the outcomes, how many people are are being cured.
Paul Dabrowa: Tell us more about pig organs.
George Church: So there’s been an organ crisis. I’ve been told that it’s gotten a little bit worse when some countries that used to force prisoners to donate organs have responded to international pressure to stop that. Also there are fewer people on the roads these days with COVID. But there’s always a crisis. And furthermore, even in the best circumstances, your organs often arrive in less than ideal circumstances. And so they get rejected and the surgery is cancelled. So with pig organs, you can make them in principle as close as necessary to make sure they won’t be rejected the way that a human to human is. We’re not quite at that point yet, but we’re at the point where they’re not immediately rejected. And furthermore, you can make them resistant to infectious diseases. So pigs are naturally resistant to a lot of human-specific diseases, like HIV, AIDS, malaria, polio, so forth, these are humans specific – a huge fraction of human diseases, even if they were originally acquired by an animal that was an extremely rare event. And generally speaking, it is just human-to-human transmission.
Paul Dabrowa: And how far away do you think that technology is? When will we be growing organs in other animals and implanting them?
George Church: So the first pig to human heart transfer was just a few weeks ago, they’ve been tested pretty extensively in primates, which is a prerequisite for larger human clinical trials. And this will apply to almost all the organs that currently are transplanted from human to human. So it’s happening, basically.
Paul Dabrowa: So five years, 10 years, 15 years, when would you predict that this is sort of going to become the mainstream?
George Church: There’s usually not that big a time delay between the beginning of clinical testing and mainstreaming it. Already many people in need get fixed during clinical trials. So clinical trials can take about a decade, but during that decade, many people can get cured. So, I would say, a decade, roughly. It’s already happening.
Paul Dabrowa: And so if that’s if it’s that easy to get organs, do you think other conditions that we wouldn’t normally do an organ transplant for, might actually become treated by these animal organs?
George Church: It’s possible so for example, the most common transplant is a blood transplant. And there are a lot of diseases where the blood cells are both the first line of defence but they’re also what’s being attacked. So for example, HIV attacks T cells, which are in your blood. So if your T cells were resistant to HIV, that would be a great preventative for HIV, and it would have to be extraordinarily safe to be used as a preventative. In general, it’s harder to get approval for preventatives, but it could be used in that mode.
Izabella Kaminska: With the current sort of organ market, there are stories China are sourcing organs from, potentially oppressed populations. Do you know if China is also working on that? It sounds like they’ve got a big demand problem and certainly more room to manoeuvre and experiment over there. So would we know even if they were ahead of the curve on this stuff?
George Church: So I think they have responded to international pressure for using organs from prisoners, and they’re one of many countries that have responded positively and publicly. That did increase the crisis. And they are working on it in parallel and in collaboration with the United States company. So, for example, I co-founded a company in Cambridge, Massachusetts called eGenesis and a sibling company in Hangzhou called Qihan. And using very similar methods to satisfy different populations. It’s not easy to move animals across borders, partly because of Foot and Mouth Disease virus. So it’s best to do all the research from scratch in both countries, but it is very active. I would say the leaders in the field are in the United States and China.
Paul Dabrowa: In terms of this research, what about extending life? What type of things there in terms of extending life in terms of technology?
George Church: That’s undergoing very rapid progress. I don’t normally prefer life extension or longevity as a term, partly because it’s hard to do the clinical trials, that is to say, there’s so much variation and in the human race in how long people live, that to prove that you didn’t just get lucky that people or people are living longer and your treatment, you know it might take three decades to really get convincing data. But the ageing reversal is something that’s much easier to get approval from the FDA. Almost every disease has a big ageing component, you know, even COVID-19 has a steep increase with age falling down and not getting out. Almost every disease and so if you can cure disease of ageing, and a lot of them, then you’re probably affecting ageing rather than just some symptom of ageing. And so it has a lot of progress. Partly because of all the progress in synthetic biology and the therapy and so forth. So, I think we’re going to see various ageing reversals, we’ve already got
some that are in clinical trials for dogs. And then that will quickly transition into human clinical class.
Izabella Kaminska: Do you think it will happen in your lifetime that you can reverse age?
George Church: Well it’s already happened in my lifetime that we can do what looks like ageing reversal in mice, and probably a dog as well. So yeah, so it could be as little as two, three years before, we’re in the human clinical trials. And again, clinical trials take as little as one year for the COVID vaccines, and as much as 10 or 15 for the other. So yes, I think this is happening in our lifetime.
Izabella Kaminska: Could you unpack what the science is all about in terms of that process?
George Church: There’s two major school of thoughts. One is that as you age, there’s damage that accumulates and you have to somehow reverse that damage. The other school is that you have cells that because they think they’re young, they automatically do damage control. Many younger cells are just healthier. And there are many ways of convincing cells that they’re younger, that have been shown to work in animals, mainly in mice. So for example, there’s a cocktail of proteins that when applied to a cell or expressed within a cell, cause that cell to take my 67 year old cells and add these four transcription factors. The cells now become embryonic-like. Now, that’s probably going too far. But you can dial it up and down to how far back you want to go in time but this has been done in hundreds of labs around the world — as you can take old cells and turn them into embryonic cells and almost anything in between. And, so these have now made their way into gene therapies where you’ll put we’ll put these rejuvenating factors into a virus-like particle, just like what we were describing for vaccines, and they will make mice so that they will restore heart function, liver, kidney function, breakage in the optic nerve, and all of this restored at youthful rates rather than at the rate that older animals would restore function.
Izabella Kaminska: So the idea is it would be very similar to how the vaccines work, so there’d be like an
injection of some variety?
George Church: Right. It’s an injection. It could be injected systemically meaning into your blood, and then it goes
everywhere that blood goes which is basically everywhere in your body. And then ideally, it would go into every cell or at least every stem cell in your body and cause rejuvenation.
Izabella Kaminska: So it’s literally that film Death Becomes Her? I don’t know if you’re familiar with it? Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn find a magical elixir that makes them live forever. I guess it’s a theme of many films and fables. But what you’re saying is that we are within a scientific grasp of making that a reality. What do you think the implication of that discovery will be? How do you envisage it being distributed? Would everyone get it? Who would be the first beneficiary? There all sorts of ethical quandaries related to it being a product?
George Church: Yes, my colleagues and I have given quite a bit of thought and discussion and written articles about those sorts of topics. I would hope for it to be distributed the way that medicine in general is. It is a medicine: it’s reversing disease and ageing, which is most diseases. I think one of the issues about equitable distribution is cost. While you’re adjusting safety, you want to address costs. The vaccines that I mentioned, can be as low as $2 a dose. So it’s getting into the range where it’s affordable. In fact, the cost of age-related diseases is enormous, trillions of dollars per year worldwide. Now, it matters if you’re just pushing it down the road — but even pushing it down the road, rather than, immortality, would have at least a temporary benefit in that many people might be inclined to not retire. Certainly, I have no intention to retire. And if you’re feeling youthful, then then you can be a productive member of society, producing wealth rather than consuming it. So it could have big financial consequences in that regard.
Izabella Kaminska: And what about the implications for like, population growth? Because presumably, if people
aren’t dying, or dying later, because they’re living longer, then there is a population control issue on the left side of the equation, what’s the ethical thinking on that?
George Church: So there is some concern that as we go into cities, our family size is decreasing dramatically. So in the sort of rural past, a family size of eight was common, sort of an average, because of expectations for death and migration and taking care of the parents and things like that, that eight was a good number. But in the city, the average now is around 1.2, which is not even replacement level. So with maybe 90 per cent of the population being in cities, that could result in a population implosion rather than explosion. So we might want to have a force of ageing reversal that would counteract that a little bit. So it could be a good thing. But all of this has to be managed. Also, there’s some possibility that we might want to get some fraction of the population off the planet, just as backup, if nothing else. There are certain existential risks that could put our entire population at risk, super volcanoes, asteroids, solar flares, and so on. And there are some estimates that the cost of getting off the planet could be — not right now — but could be in the range that individual families could afford. So it could be like, when Asians and Europeans went to what is now the Americas. So all of these things mean there isn’t a simple yes, no, positive or negative economic and ethical questions.
Izabella Kaminska: I mean, that’s fascinating. So you’re saying this whole idea of genetic life extension, you see it being coupled with off planet living?
George Church: Not necessarily. I’m saying that they’re two things. One is the implosion of population growth due to moving to cities, which I think is avoidable. And then there’s the possibility of off planet living but they both have implications on population.
Izabella Kaminska: So the idea is that we shouldn’t worry about overpopulation because there will be enough factors potentially, in the future, sort of depressing the population that it will even itself out?
George Church: I almost never say, don’t worry. I just give facts that can allow one to do policy and personal planning?
Izabella Kaminska: Are we in a position yet then to sort of engineer gonna have very sophisticated life? Biologically? Or are we just on the basic sort of very primitive forms of life at the moment?
George Church: I would say that engineering, a pig heart to go into a human is pretty sophisticated.
Izabella Kaminska: I mean, conscious life. Could we clone people? Could we have a depository of DNA, and then they just grow humans based on that. Is that still fiction? Is there a pathway to that scientific reality?
George Church: I think we will probably do things in order of need and urgency, and I don’t think there’s an urgent need for, for sort of things that you’re describing. But there’s not a fundamental difference between humans and pigs that we can and we can clone pigs, we do clone pigs in order to make them suitable donors for human parts. So I mean, I think that we could do it, I just don’t think we will do it in the immediate future, because there’s not a clearly articulated need for it.
Paul Dabrowa: What about enhancing humans mean, creating like super soldiers or super intelligent people? I mean, are other countries doing that like in terms of like trying to create a super race of people and things like that?
George Church: Well, I think we have to be careful about that term because almost all technologies that are adopted are enhancements, you know. If our ancestors wanted to quickly go across the continent, they would just start running. But now we take a jet. And that’s an enhancement. Vaccines are an enormous enhancement. There are a couple of dozen killer diseases that would terrify our ancestors that we don’t even think about. Most of us aren’t even aware that Smallpox is extinct. And that’s something of benefit to the entire planet, and we don’t even have to pay for it anymore. So I think we are super-human compared to our ancestors. And a lot of that is due to physics and chemistry, not fancy genetics. But we’re using genetics as well. Vaccines are probably the best example. But enhancement is not something that we’re necessarily fearful of, we’re addicted to it. And I would say that having this little smartphone, or other access to information, and to schooling, it makes us have a huge advantage over our ancestors in many ways.
Paul Dabrowa: Freeman Dyson used to talk about editing DNA so that we can actually colonise other planets. Is that possible? Will we recognise human beings in 100 years? Will there be different species of humans on different planets, who sort of edit themselves to be able to live within those environments?
George Church: I think that’s one of the few reasons why we might do that. But we have to keep in mind that there are alternatives even for that kind of radical. Basically, it transitions from being about enhancement to being life and death. In certain circumstances, so if we have a pandemic, suddenly we need a new vaccine, if we have unusual pressures from living in a city, we have to create technologies that deal with that. And certainly, in space, the major pressures are low gravity and radiation, maybe neuro and microbial components as well. But almost all of those that we can protect ourselves from radiation by combinations of radiation shielding, and magnetic fields such as on Earth. We can create artificial gravity by centrifugal force. So it will take a very special set of circumstances to decide that we can’t handle it by advanced medicines after you’re born, and advanced physics and chemistry. I think it’s unnecessary, it’s not so much that we can’t do this, that we will be
very pragmatic about it. Hopefully, safety will be a top priority.
Izabella Kaminska: I think that makes a lot of sense that you wouldn’t want to push ahead unless there was a need. But the reason I was asking about cloning humans, is because Elon Musk recently announced his humanoid robot. And it seemed to me from a pure resource perspective, that if we’re going to go down the road of creating personal helpers, that it’s always going to be cheaper to grow them than it is to manufacture them in a manufacturing plant. And there is an ethics question about if you can grow a human and sort of have the capacity to put software in their head, that makes them sort of love their servitude, so they get happiness from it. Is it ethically wrong to do that? So if Elon Musk thinks there’s a demand for them, surely it’s not going to be that far away?
George Church: It’s worth asking fantastical questions, I think one of the advantages of this topic of movies is a help us avoid those dystopias. We may run into other ones, but the more creative we are, the more time we have to care to avoid them. I don’t think that robotic helpers are necessarily that different from washing machines on the one hand or dogs. I mean, you know, dogs are grown and provide a comfort to a lot of people. As our population shrinks in the cities, we find many countries have an ageing population, and no one to take care of them. And so it’s a humanitarian, positive, too. It’s not necessarily that we can’t grow people it’s that they are unevenly distributed in age and geography. And so having you know, 24/7 monitoring of an ageing population could be at least a temporary fix while we’re trying to cure diseases of ageing and reverse it so they can take care of themselves. So that’s one scenario. There’s plenty of other ones. I mean there’s a whole variety of uses of advanced automation in the house, in the home.
Izabella Kaminska: I guess in the conventional sense, it’s all very specialised. A washing machine only does one thing. I guess what Elon’s introducing is this generic robot AI helper. But I just think it’s interesting that he thinks there’s a market for these sorts of entities. And from my dystopic kind of perspective, I just worry that someone will say, we can just engineer biologically clones or humans of some lesser form of intelligence, a la Brave New World, to fulfil that role instead, because it will be cheaper. And there’s an argument to be made that mining the world for rare metals to create helpers is not as efficient as just growing a human in a lab.
George Church: I think that’s a very important scenario to bring up. It’s also possible that rather than decreasing the abilities of a human, we might increase the abilities of an animal, you know, make it so that dogs or chimpanzees could do some of the things that humans currently do. These are important scenarios that are ethically fraught. But these things don’t get into our society that easily. There’s a general resistance to anything of the uncanny valley variety, where things look kind of human but it’s not, those won’t sell to the broad market. Plus, there’s a lot of watchdog organisations that will raise the alarm if there’s some ethical boundary being crossed. So again I think it’s going to be need-based and if you have someone that has Alzheimer’s and you want to come up with ways to keep them from doing themselves harm, let’s say turning on the fire, walking into traffic or something like that, it could be accomplished by something that doesn’t even remotely look human. You know, something that involves quickly getting a human being into a room, like video conferences or senses what’s going on. Just in general, a general purpose a humanoid robot would not be completely general purpose because most humans don’t wash their clothes the way they used to, by putting them in the river, they go to a machine. So having a humanoid robot that goes from a human to a machine isn’t providing that much function. I think there will be a niche for robotic dogs and, and all kinds of robots at home. And they will be potentially entertaining, but they won’t necessarily be that much more entertaining than a flat screen.
Paul Dabrowa: In terms of watchdogs, obviously, we live in a very big world and there’s lots of different countries which do weird things. And there are other countries where in terms of the ethical issues, the scientists aren’t that concerned, and they’re pushing forward secretly in terms of developing this stuff?
George Church: You know, there are secrets in the world, and there’s even some justifications for secrets in the world. I think that the net direction is, is towards peace. And that’s somewhat documented in Steven Pinker’s Better Angels book that we are becoming a little less murderous. I think increasingly wars will be economic and computational. I think, to the extent if we float all the boats, so if everybody gets a little bit wealthier, then it decreases some of the motivation for having truly deleterious types of warfare where human lives are used as bargaining chips. I can kill off more of my population, and therefore I win. I think that’s happening. I think, an increasing number of diseases differentially affect poverty. And it’s true that the rich will serve themselves first. But the crumbs that fall off the plates are sometimes enough to lift everybody up a little bit. Smallpox is an example that is available to even the poorest people in the world. We’re getting a little bit better at telecommunications being available to almost every village in the world, and clean water. I think as that steadily progresses, the motivation for invading one another’s lands decreases. If there is an increasing tendency towards cities, again, the boundaries become less critical, etc. I mean, I’m not predicting or advocating anything here. I’m just saying there are a lot of possibilities that need to be explored all the way.
Paul Dabrowa: Myself and Izabella interviewed the former head of the Soviet biological weapons programme during the Cold War. What things do you know about biological weapons and things that were done during the Cold War and what concerns you about biological weapons?
George Church: Well, the main thing is weaponizing existing pathogens, existing pathogens are already quite potent. And you don’t need modern synthetic biology to make them more potent.
Paul Dabrowa: Apparently the Soviets had like Marburg virus crossed with smallpox in intercontinental ballistic missiles ready to launch?
George Church: I think far more likely is that they had anthrax and smallpox and not recombined with one another and ready to go. In fact, I know at least one of their factories was shut down due to anthrax, so it was not a recombinant anthrax, it was just plain old anthrax. It can be weaponized by how you make it into a powder and how you deliver it, and so on. But I think the, with the reduction of the nuclear brinksmanship there, I think there’s also been a reduction in interest in chemical and biological weapons as well. You could never tell because of secrecy, but my instincts are from conversations I’ve had with the military and with scientists that are one step away, it just doesn’t seem as necessary. We’re really a fairly practical species. But the thing that worries me is emerging diseases that, that have that are not in human control. That were not initiated by humans, and also the possibility of individual humans that, that have a bad day or, you know, are insane, or highly motivated by some idiosyncratic cultural condition. That worries me more than the governmental does.
Paul Dabrowa: So what could these individuals actually do these days with modern technology?
George Church: Well, I don’t think it requires modern technology. For example, aeroplanes. You could an Ebola victim, and turn them into aerosols into a bunch of aeroplanes. The main technology that puts us at a greater risk is our mobility. That’s what helped the spread of COVID 19, not because anybody had any ill will, it’s just that we have trouble controlling our mobility. It’s considered some kind of human right almost by some subset of the population, that we can go wherever we want to go, whenever we want to go and we don’t have to wear masks. And that to me is more of a threat than any advanced technology. It’s just technology we consider ordinary, which is getting access to severely ill patients, and then using those in a highly distributed travel environment.
Izabella Kaminska: So does that mean in the future as these threats grow, and I don’t know what the rationale is for why they would be more of a threat than they were, say, 10 years ago? Are you sort of suggesting we might not be entitled to have mobility as a human right anymore?
George Church: If a pandemic gets to a severe point of seriousness, then travel is cut off. And we’ve seen that. And this is not the most serious pandemic that one can imagine that could come out. So yes, we should actually practice it even when we don’t need it. That’s why you have fire drills and things like that. Rare things do happen and we shouldn’t have to have a supply chain issue with our masks. Every house should be equipped with appropriate levels of masking, and we be able to switch off our travel wanderlust quite readily. I mean, voluntarily. There were all kinds of voluntary tightening that occurred during World War Two and the Great Depression and overall, we were either altruistic or we were forced to, or both.
Paul Dabrowa: You mentioned things that could be worse, so what could be worse than COVID? What is on the horizon in terms of potential risks?
George Church: Well, hopefully, we’re gonna get better and better at responding to it. Anything that is spread by contact or respiratory, we don’t necessarily need a vaccine as our first line of defence, just social distancing testing, masks, you know, protective garments in general. We should be able to snap into that on a moment’s notice. There should be no delay. A false alarm should not be our biggest concern. Our concern should be how quickly can we do it. You know, it’s like with it when the when a fire alarm goes off for a fire drill, we don’t say “Well, I’m not going to do that, you can’t make me do this fire drill.” But I think we need to become more altruistic and you know protective of other people. A lot of people think masks are to protect yourself. They are intended to protect other people. And that’s the way we should think about it. But we’ve seen worse diseases, but most of them don’t spread very far. You know, Ebola, the first SARS were all worse than the current SARS Cov2. But they didn’t have that dynamic, to some extent if you kill too quickly or too effectively, then you don’t spread.
Izabella Kaminska: Obviously there’s a growing recognition that COVID itself might have been engineered in a lab and leaked, and I think there is a wider perception, especially if that story is verified properly, that a lot of these pandemics are being sort of catalysed by our own unconstrained curiosity, Pandora’s box style. There is a lot of, I guess, contempt for scientists who are TINKERING AWAY ignoring moratoriums on gain of function or whatever. Do you do you think that that is a fair perspective? If COVID is proven to be manmade, they might look at the historical record and think we, we haven’t had to live through something like COVID since the Spanish flu. It’s a hard sell, sometimes, this idea that there is a greater risk today than there was, say 10 years ago that justifies all these terribly repressive countermeasures. People I think, are quite suspicious of the scientists and that they might have more of a triggering role in these pandemics than nature.
George Church: It’s extremely unlikely that there was anything intentional done. I think it’s fairly unlikely anything accidental was done to COVID-19. There’s sufficient risk of it naturally occurring. And really, we should take some of the lessons that we’ve learned from responding to the natural part COVID 19 and apply it to other diseases that are threatening mankind, like malaria and HIV. It is true scientists have done gain of function research, but that was aimed at preparing ourselves for what they considered, justifiably, is an inevitability that those diseases that they were exploring could if they happen naturally and we were unprepared for them, could be worse than any previous disease. Since we do have good containment facilities, with a lot of surveillance, they could be used. I don’t personally do that kind of research. But I think it’s not a simple decision as to whether we put ourselves at greater risk or less risk by not doing those experiments. I think it’s something that requires a lot of oversight.
And I think we need to develop a better culture of whistleblowing, that is to say when, when one scientist thinks, or one person thinks another person is doing something risky, they should, if you see something, say something, and there should be rewards for people that notice something that’s harmful, whether it’s intentional or not, and there should be punishment for people who don’t report things that seem contrary to modern medicine.
Izabella Kaminska: The whistleblowing is interesting, because, you know, I was investigating the, the lab leak, and I did speak to a number of virologists, and some of them felt very scared to talk because at the time, it was considered taboo, and they were fearful of their careers being sort of put on the line. I had not appreciated that there was this sort of mood going on in the scientific community. It didn’t strike me as very healthy for science where I think speaking out and being transparent is incredibly important. So that implies to me that the scientists might not be wittingly taking risks. I think from a public perspective, there is a fear that the ego is in the cat, you know, the desire to make a discovery outweighs the mitigation efforts that you are taking against the risks.
George Church: I don’t I don’t want to reassure. I want the public to be concerned about these sorts of things. And Just like I’ve advocated the equivalent of fire drills, where we test our ability to respond to sudden threats, like pandemics, I think we should also have fire drills where we see if we’re good at whistleblowing, rather than creating a culture where people are afraid to blow the whistle, we create a culture where we’re going to simulate an event or someone’s doing something they shouldn’t be doing and seeing how many people around them report it. Not with actual pathogen or anything, just notebooks that say “Oh, I’m making designer babies” or “I’m bringing smallpox back.” And then if their colleagues don’t report them, their colleagues get fines or imprisonment or whatever, something that creates a strong reporting culture rather than a fearful one. I think that would be a net positive. We have to also manage for the medicine not being worse than the disease and so you don’t want to create something where there’s a lot of false alarms of people that aren’t doing anything wrong. But you got to have a system where the false alarms are quickly dissipated. And it could be done in such a way that reputations are not tarnished incorrectly. So I really think that’s important. There were lots of people who knew about the babies that were born with the CRISPR both in China and the United States and did not report it.
Izabella Kaminska: I don’t know enough about this, what was the story about the CRISPR Babies?
George Church: There was kind of worldwide opinion that we were not ready to apply editing to genetic inheritance. And a scientist did that in China. And it could have happened here.
Paul Dabrowa: He was quite keen to get published in terms of what he was doing? He was very naive and thought he would be very popular.
George Church: And it’s hard to say exactly how it might have gone differently. It’s hard to get things published without IRB approval, that is to say, an institutional review of the ethics. He did go through a checklist of things that he thought he was getting the appropriate kinds of approvals. But the kind of approval you need to get published is quite strict. And that was the main reason he was getting his papers rejected. One could argue that those papers might have been a net positive, in a precautionary way. That to see how things could go wrong. It’s not totally clear that that the ethics of consenting and so forth were worse than papers that are published, and the importance of that kind of information being public. Right now, there’s still not published three years later.
Izabella Kaminska: Were are these babies born?
George Church: As far as we know, they’re healthy three-year-olds.
Izabella Kaminska: And what were the genetic changes that they did?
George Church: CCR-5 is a gene that is part of the process by which HIV gets into your T cells. And so at least one of them was made deficient in the CCR-5 gene, and therefore, potentially resistant HIV. This is a gene therapy that was already approved by the FDA for clinical trials in the United States in adults. So it wasn’t a completely wacky idea. And HIV is a stigmatising disease in many countries, including China. And it is not a solved problem. Two million people die a year from HIV, even though we do have drugs and we have safe sex protocols. Those are not sufficient. And it isn’t something that you can get by genetic counselling or other normal medical needs. Some of the criteria were being satisfied by this experiment. And relative to many other new medical technologies this was not obviously life-threatening. So the first clinical trials on monoclonal antibodies, which are now a
major source of healthcare, and the first clinical trials on gene therapy, which have now also saved many lives… Those two had deaths or very close to death in their first round of clinical trials, and this did not so it’s not one of these things where it’s just an obvious easy decision as to what’s ethical, what’s not ethical, whether publishing the papers is ethical or unethical, whether doing a preventative medical procedure is ahead of its time or it will never be adopted. Three scientists were convicted and at least one of them spent some sort of time in prison for the last three years, and I think it was a three-year term so it’s, it’s over nearly over.
Paul Dabrowa: So there needs to be a new paradigm to deal with advances in genetic technology?
George Church: Science in general. We should run fire drills where they create scenarios, and we’ll see whether people report them or not. We actually have a required class for graduate students in the United States for any institution that receives funding from the US government is supposed to teach a course in responsible conduct of scientific research. And I taught that course for many years, it’s required of the students, it’s not required of faculty, but there’s enough faculty to teach it. And that course should be an inspiration for tests you can detect irresponsible research, and that you can report it in a way that that doesn’t risk reputation to the false alarms. I think, if we had something that we could do, almost immediately, most of the parts are in place for that sort of practice.
Paul Dabrowa: So in terms of moving from an industrial civilization to a new civilization, the institutions around that just haven’t really kept up?
George Church: It’s a common narrative, I hear that our government institutions haven’t kept up. My observation is they have kept up. But you know, my observation is that we pay attention to the bad events. A number of people have noted that with almost 8 billion people on the planet, there’s no shortage of really bad events to report on if you just look at the negative tail. So there’s plenty of fires to report on and hurricanes and whatnot. And that’s what the news tends to be about. But in terms of keeping up, I would say that the FDA has kept up with the most modern technology. I’ve made numerous visits to the FDA, and they’re up to speed and they want safety and efficacy. Same thing is true of the FBI. The FBI has been aware of synthetic biology since day one, and I’ve worked with them, I’ve worked with a number of agents. And, I’ve even done whistleblowing myself to them when I felt that it was necessary. And I think all scientists should be comfortable with it. And in the case that I reported that no one’s reputation was harmed, but the FBI became more well-informed about potential risks.
I think that the same thing should be happening at the level of grants. Instead of the gain of function research only being only made public at the end, after they’ve done the research, it should have been made public. When they first had the idea, when they first did the patent or the grant proposal, even before they got it funded, it should have been subject to public scrutiny. It’s more sociological than technological that the agencies in charge are aware, at least parts of them are. That’s not the problem. The problem is a cultural one.
Izabella Kaminska: So I was just wondering what your view on the ethics panels, how they work, and how they’re organised is?
George Church: I think our society has steadily increased its transparency. It used to be that politicians and CEOs did not have to disclose their financials at all. Now, there is a great deal of it. The ethics panels that I know, overall, they’re all their names and qualifications are public information. Even as a researcher, I’m not on ethics panels. Sometimes I will give reports to them. But I’m not making decisions. But all of my financial interests that could be a financial conflict are public information. The lack of transparency at this point is mainly in cases of where we have intelligence gathering, where there still are military and economic secrets that would be very difficult to have full transparency on those. But anything that involves public health and ethics of testing new medical technologies, I’m pretty sure those panels are well met.
I’ve been on the periphery of the game and function, I couldn’t tell you the name of the panels off the top of my head. But I do know that rosters as they’re called that judge my grants, which include grants for anything involving infectious diseases, for example, we worked on COVID. Those panels, those rosters are known. And if anything the secrecy, they would not want me to know who they are. What is secret are not the grant panels, but the peer review for certain journals. Those are not transparent. I think that should be advocated. And there are some journals where that’s that’s all known.
Most education has testing, but our ethics programmes do not, they write a paper at the end of the course, that’s required by the NIH, I think it’d be nice if there was some kind of mechanism. Especially one that’s unexpected, like a fire drill is unexpected. It’s more effective if you’re not prepared for it. That shows what you might do in a spontaneous situation. I think that’s what’s missing, I don’t think protection of whistleblowers is missing. We need to do it discreetly enough that neither the reputation whistleblower or the potentially falsely accused is damaged until enough information is acquired in a discreet manner. And then and only then does it go to trial or, or it publicly announced and I think journalists have to show a little discretion there as well.
Paul Dabrowa: How can DNA be used to store data and in computers? Will we have biological computers in the future?
George Church: So this was something that goes way back but got a big boost when I published my book, which was encoded — even the photographs were encoded in DNA, we made 70 billion copies of them — and published a peer-reviewed paper on this. Since then it gained momentum with pretty well-known international companies like technicolour and Microsoft encoding larger and larger datasets, including movies. And now there’s an international consortium to advance this technology.
It has advantages over conventional stores and disadvantages. The advantages are that it has a better track record for longevity. The oldest DNA that we’ve been able to read is over a million years old, while the oldest disk drive that we can still read — there’s a lot of digital information that has been lost — it’s nowhere near a million years old, more like decades. It can be stored without energy consumption. Like I said we made 70 billion copies for a few pennies. But its disadvantages you can’t use it the way you would use a thumb drive. But I think a more interesting application is one where we can now store data in every cell of a body. We’ve done it in mice. And we can store a terabyte of information in just a billion of the mass of the animals. So it’s not like a giant disk drive around your neck, it’s just this tiny thing distributed throughout your body, and it can record physiological data, historic data about how your cells grew and developed. And that could be like a flight recorder on an aeroplane where you don’t routinely read flight recorders after every flight, you read the part of the flight report that tells you what you want to know. Which wing went, which communication system went out, so forth. And the same thing could be done in a medical situation. Something weird happened, you want to be able to take those cells from that patient and figure out what went wrong.
Paul Dabrowa: In terms of retrieving information from the past you’re trying to resurrect the woolly mammoth so tell us a little bit about that?
George Church: We’re not actually trying to resurrect the extinct species so much as we have resurrected extinct gene versions. So at least two genes have been shown to be appropriate for a cold environment that were extinct and were rescued from the elephant. And even some information has been rescued from billions of years back by using phylogenetic tricks. But actual DNA is only a million years. And we’re not limited to ancient DNA – we’re trying to make cold-resistant elephants, both to help save endangered species or providing them with new land to occupy, but also to save and restore the ecosystem of the Arctic, which is in grave danger of releasing monumental amounts of methane, which is even worse global warming gas than carbon dioxide. So amounts of methane that are far beyond anything that humans produce.
We are not discriminating against the dodo, we’re discriminating against extinct species in general. But if they have genes that could be useful we’ll use them.
So bison in general, all over the world, were almost completely extinct down in the low hundreds. And now, the worldwide bison population is, I’ve been told up to half a million. So we have shown that we’re capable of rewilding, which in a certain sense, some of these species were only alive in captivity. So they were extinct in the wild. And there’s probably over 1000 cases of rewilding either for local populations or globally. We hear about cases where an invasive species got carried by a ship accidentally, and cause trouble. But what we don’t hear about is the 1000s of cases where we have very intentionally restored species. This has happened in Europe, Asia, and the Americas. So I think they’re, you know, the most famous case is restoring the wolves to Yellowstone. It was predicted by ecologists how it would have a ripple effect all the way through the ecosystems through the trees to the herbivores and then the beavers, and then the lakes. And then it did have exactly that effect. Oh, wow.
Paul Dabrowa: What’s still underreported?
George Church: I don’t think this is a complete blind spot, but essentially floating around us are microorganisms, and we’re blind to them. And I’ve been advocating that we should have a culture of bio weather maps. It’s one of the few citizen science things that citizens actually understand and it affects their lives and health, which is weather. And we should have a similar relationship with bio-weather, we should not wait until we have a pandemic level. We should have interest in things that could be patient zero, but we don’t know yet. We should talk about those. We should talk about whether a particular daycare or airline has got diseases that you’re at risk for. So I think we have the technology to do both local and global monitoring. We just need to have the cultural interest in it. We have industries that produce testing devices, we have the CDC, we have the news organisations to do weather maps, they could just do another segment on the bio weather map. It’s just a matter of marketing and figuring out how to scale it up.
When I suggested this back in 2002, this was alien, but now people do pay attention. And they know the difference between Omicron and Delta. It’s part of the news. It’s just as likely to impact our life as the weather is, slipping and falling or putting on proper tyres. They’re both risks that we’re just starting to get to develop a culture where we’re paying attention to it.
It could even be personalised. You know, your risk factors. And it could be that you’ve already been vaccinated against that strain. Or it could be that you have a genetic predisposition, like I have risk factors for respiratory problems. And so, and it could be generalised to include allergies, and pollutants and all these things, it could be all part of the kind of chemical and bio weather map. And it could even be easier than watching the weather channel to get the weather. I mean, it could go straight into your cell phone and your cell phone could decide what’s actionable for you specifically, and filter out all the stuff that you don’t need to know. There’s a variety of ways you can do this. But the point is, we need a culture of bio-weather map attention that we currently have in pretty good shape for conventional weather.