WASHINGTON – Scientists believe genetic engineering experiments have the potential to wipe out malaria and other illnesses that kill millions of people every year.

But they also acknowledge they could have unintended consequences that could be catastrophic.

So, over the next four years, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, dubbed DARPA, plans to develop a cleanup crew for engineered genes deemed harmful to the eco-system.

The initiative is called “Safe Genes” – a program designed to counteract gene-drive systems currently being developed to override the standard rules of gene inheritance and natural selection. The danger, scientists recognize, is that without a backup plan, a gene drive released into nature could spread or change in unexpected ways with potentially disastrous effects.

Kevin Esvelt, head of the Sculpting Evolution lab at MIT Media Lab, which is applying for Safe Genes funding in collaboration with eight other research groups, predicts that eventually an accident will allow a drive with potential to spread globally to escape laboratory controls.

“It’s not going to be bioterror,” he told Scientific American, “it’s going to be ‘bioerror.'”

Supporting the program is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with plans to double a grant for the program to $70 million.

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DARPA already has been one of the largest public funders of synthetic biology research in the U.S. in recent years, upping its spending on synthetic biology projects to more than $100 million in 2014 from nothing in 2010. The agency announced its Safe Genes program in September 2016 and plans to award funding to multiple research teams by the first half of 2017.

“If we’re going to be really bullish about genome engineering,” says DARPA program manager Renee Wegrzyn, “we need to be just as aggressive with tools to reverse those changes.”

What could go wrong?

Suppressing a trait in one species may unleash a surge by a competitor that is equally capable of spreading a disease like dengue or malaria. Disrupting a population could also produce ripple effects in other corners of the eco-system, for example taking a food source from aquatic predators that feed on mosquito larvae.

“You couldn’t go back in time,” says Jason Delborne, a professor of science, policy and society at North Carolina State University who helped produce the National Academies report, and is part of a team that is putting together a proposal for Safe Genes funding. “We shouldn’t move forward being emboldened [by the idea] that we can release a new trait and have things go back to the way it was.”

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