Can Genetic Engineering Create Killers?

Jurassic World and Hitman: Agent 47 suggest that tinkering with DNA can lead to deadly results. But what does the science say?

Good news for prey: Genetic engineering is woefully ill equipped to produce bespoke killers of any kind. That’s because building a life-form is a messy and unpredictable process. “It’s quite easy to disrupt develop­ment and cause pro­blems,” says Michael Deem, a bioengineer at Rice University. Often, modified creatures die for reasons that are never identified.

That means it’s also too early to wield genetic engineering for good–but that hasn’t stopped scientists from wading into ethically dubious waters by trying. In China, researchers recently edited the genes of a nonviable human embryo. While targeting the gene responsible for a potentially fatal blood disorder, they triggered a number of unexpected mutations. “They argued that they never intended to take the experiments all the way to a human being,” says Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Emory Center for Ethics. “But in fact, these exact experiments are what you have to do to perfect these technologies.”

Today, the surest path to genetic modification is likely an indirect one. For instance, studies have shown that microbes in the gut appear to affect things like mood and obesity. Modifying the micro­biome might lead to more-levelheaded soldiers or more-fit humans in general. DARPA has funded two attempts to develop genetically engineered blood–one to function as a universal blood type, and another to deliver antibiotics. As Wolpe points out, the military has punished soldiers for refusing similar treatments, such as injections to protect against bio-agents. The battlefield could be the perfect ethical no-man’s-land for the dawn of gene-based human enhancement.

This article was originally published in the July 2015 issue of Popular Science, as part of our Weird Science feature. Check out the rest of the feature here.