Gene editing has the scary potential of being used as a ‘zombification’ tool by bioterrorists – Screen Shot
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Gene editing has the scary potential of being used as a ‘zombification’ tool by bioterrorists

Picture this, a world full of zombies outside your door. You recognise one. It’s your neighbour, the nice one who always smiles at you when you pass their house on your way back from your daily shop. They stayed inside the past couple of days due to a bug that got passed around and are now banging furiously on your door to feast on your brain. ‘How did this happen?’, you ask. I blame gene editing. Let me explain.

What is gene editing?

Gene editing—also known as genome editing—is defined as “the manipulation of the genetic material of a living organism by deleting, replacing, or inserting a DNA sequence, typically with the aim of improving a crop or farmed animal or correcting a genetic disorder.” In simpler terms, just like an Instagram influencer might edit a selfie in Photoshop to smooth out some skin imperfections and make their waist appear smaller, scientists have managed to do the same thing to an organism’s DNA strand and in turn modify it to their liking.

Several approaches to genome editing have been developed. A recent one is known as CRISPR-Cas9 (often shortened to CRISPR), a system which has generated a lot of excitement in the scientific community because it is faster, cheaper, more accurate, and more efficient than other existing gene editing methods.

Previous research using CRISPR has shown that it can turn normal fat into energy-burning cells and even led to the world’s first genetically edited babies, ‘made’ by Chinese scientist He Jiankui. Long story short, gene editing and everything that it represents for the future is pretty crazy.

What could go wrong with gene editing?

Before we can even look into the risks that come along with genome editing, it’s important we first explain who exactly would maliciously use such scientific progress. Introducing bioterrorism, “the intentional release of viruses, bacteria, or other germs that can sicken or kill people, livestock, or crops.” Whether it might be from reading one too many science fiction novels or binge watching too many apocalypse films on movie night, the looming threat that one day humans will destroy ourselves is ever-present.

As stated in The Conversation, “With recent advances in gene editing, it may be possible for bioterrorists to design viruses capable of altering our behaviour, spreading such a disease and ultimately killing us. And chances are we still wouldn’t be sufficiently prepared to deal with it.”

While we do live in an age of conspiracy theories, wacky theorists may actually have a case here. Allow me to present you zombification—yet another concept horrifying enough to make your heart race.

What’s zombification got to do with gene editing?

Currently, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us just how unprepared we are for, well, everything. I mean, do you remember when people were stacking milk and toilet paper into their shopping carts with party hats taped to their mouths? This War of the Worlds-esque behaviour could in fact become even worse as we start turning into our own horror fiction villain.

What if the real threat wasn’t COVID-19 anymore, but a “gene-edited pathogen designed to turn us into zombies,” straight off the set of The Walking Dead, or “ghost-like, agitated creatures with little awareness of our surroundings?” pondered The Conversation.

In fact, zombification is already present in our world and occurs quite frequently within nature. Perhaps the most well known type is rabies—a contagious and fatal viral disease of dogs and other mammals, transmissible through the saliva to humans and causing madness, convulsions and death.

When it comes to CRISPR, the tech’s ability to edit the human genome with unprecedented precision, replacing one single letter in the DNA—which is very tricky to do by the way—has shown its star power to treat genetic conditions such as sickle cell disease, beta thalassemia, and many others.

But CRISPR could be used for much darker purposes, such as bioterrorism. It has the ability to alter pathogens to make them more transmissible or even worse, fatal. It could also turn a harmless non-pathogen, such as the microbe, into an extremely aggressive virus. The technique even has the capability of altering a virus to make it a dangerous threat to a wider range of species than it currently infects, or make it resistant to antibiotics or antivirals as Pin Lean Lau, a Lecturer in Bio-Law at Brunel Law School, Brunel University London, posited.

You’re probably thinking that a zombie-like disease, if it could be created, surely wouldn’t make the dead pop back out of their graves as reawakened brain-hungry monsters. While you may be right there, an infection passed through saliva with an extremely high transmission and mortality rate, if it caused extreme agitation and destructive behaviour, or even death, wouldn’t be far off from the horror that movie theatres capitalise on every time a new zombie blockbuster comes out. Such a virus travels from human to human without effort, similarly to diseases like the Ebola and Marburg viruses.

With this in mind, it’s not at all surprising that the former Director of US National Intelligence, James Clapper, termed gene editing “weapons of mass destruction and proliferation” in 2016, as first noted in Insider. The Guardian also reported that Clapper had raised fears about “rogue scientists” possibly using this technology for their own maniacal pursuits the same year. In 2018, the US government put its foot down and released its first official bio-defence strategy, which involved a whole host of governmental agencies. The document detailed plans about everything from deliberate bioterror threats to “naturally occurring outbreaks and infectious diseases that escape a lab accidentally.” Even more interesting, the US Department of Defence Strategic Command unit has issued a training programme called CONOP 8888 (Counter-Zombie Dominance), which actually simulates a zombie apocalypse scenario.

So, what can we do to stop a potential zombie apocalypse?

Before you lose hope and fall into despair, it’s important for you to be aware of the fact that we do have international law conventions on biological and chemical toxins. In the US for example, there are strict laws that prohibit states from acquiring or retaining biological weapons. But do these really work against these new threats?

In June, a World Health Organisation (WHO) expert committee published two reports—the first offered a series of recommendations around gene editing, and the second set up a framework around governance—in order to put forward a set of ideas around how human genome editing could be governed at the appropriate institutional, national and global level. The framework presented possible regulatory authorities or national guidelines regarding gene editing and similar technological techniques. For example, one section suggested that trusted ethics committees weigh in and review clinical trials and approvals in the area.

It must be noted that the WHO is not in a position to regulate genome editing in individual countries—these are unfortunately only suggestions, as sensible as they may be. Therefore, the fate of the future does lie within individual countries’ judgement to implement these recommendations as part of their own national law—cue the eye roll. I definitely wouldn’t hold my breath either, since another problem is already rearing its ugly head; the guidelines don’t even touch the surface on the issue of safety or efficacy around how to handle gene editing—it was stated that this wasn’t part of the scope of the review.

For now, these recommendations are the closest thing we have to a global framework of governance. As the technology continues to develop, it can only be hoped that they will also evolve accordingly. But ultimately, we may need to think about how to make such frameworks legally binding.

The future may not be entirely bleak, but we might have to start hitting the gym and brushing up on our survival skills—we might even have to start saving if we want to afford a billionaire doomsday bunker one day.

Your new climate change diet: what you should eat to avoid the apocalypse

As we contemplate the catastrophe of climate change and the ways in which we can tackle this beast, what usually comes to mind is necessary tech-revisions and emission-reductions in the transportation, aviation, and energy industries. While those indeed the are the world’s biggest polluters, we often tend to ignore another major culprit: the food industry.

Last month, The New York Times published an elaborate piece about the facts behind pollution in the food industry. Screen Shot prepared a palatable version of these findings, which would give you an insight into the most polluting foods out there and what dietary choices you can make in order to reduce your carbon footprint.

So just how polluting is the food industry?

According to Science Magazine, the food system currently accounts for roughly one-quarter of the global greenhouse gas emissions humans produce each year. This figure refers to all stages of growth, production, distribution, and consumption of foods, which generate varying degrees of pollution. This includes deforestation for the purpose of farming, operation of farm machinery, raising and harvesting of all types of food—from meats to plants, as well packaging and shipping of food products.

Which types of foods cause the most damage?

The answer to this question is simple: meats and dairy. But even within these two categories there is a hierarchy.

The biggest greenhouse gas emitters are beef and lamb, with beef alone accounting for 17.7 percent of the average annual CO2 impact and lamb responsible for 9.9 percent. The main reason why meat production leaves a greater carbon footprint is that it takes up more space and energy to produce animal products as opposed to plant-based produce. It also requires more resources to raise crop that is used to feed animals which then become food themselves, as opposed to raising crop that goes directly to feed humans. Finally, cows and lambs in particular contain a special bacteria in their stomach that helps them digest grass, but also generates methane (an incredibly powerful greenhouse gas).

Next on the list of shame are farmed shrimp, which account for 9.1 percent of the average greenhouse gas impact. Farmed catfish is reportedly a great polluter as well, and so are wild shrimp and lobsters, as pulling them out of the water requires an enormous amount of energy.

Cheese, specifically Cheddar and Mozzarella, are responsible for 5.4 percent of the annual emissions average. These cheeses are more polluting than other milk products as they require large amounts of milk to be produced.

Pork and chicken trail right behind, with pork accounting for 3.8 percent of CO2 impact and poultry for 2.9 percent. Finally, eggs reportedly account for 2.1 percent of emissions and at the bottom of the list are tofu, beans and nuts (with each hardly scraping one percent).

Can my diet truly make an impact in curbing global warming?

Absolutely. Although there are other factors to consider while attempting to be more environmentally-conscious, such as our driving, flying, and consumption habits, our diet is one of the simplest ways in which we can begin to make a difference, and a growing number of studies confirm that being mindful of what we eat can significantly reduce our carbon footprint.   

What dietary changes should I make, then?

First and foremost—cut back on meats and dairy. Specifically, try to reduce your consumption of beef and lamb. If relinquishing meat altogether equates the apocalypse for you, try to rely more on pork and poultry in your diet, as their production results in lower amounts of CO2 emissions.

Consuming less dairy would also significantly reduce your carbon footprint. When you do, try to opt for products like yoghurt, cottage cheese, and cream cheese, which cause less pollution. As a general rule, try to avoid cow’s milk when possible and go with soy, oat or almond milk.

If seafood is your thing, aim for wild fish such as anchovies, sardines, herring, tuna, pollock, cod, and haddock, as well as clams, oysters, and scallops, all of which generate relatively low levels of pollution.

Am I being guilted into going vegan?

Well, not exactly. While going vegan will reduce your carbon footprint by an estimated 50 percent (gasp!), simply cutting back on meats and dairy will go a long way as well, especially if you live in The West or Australia. The World Resources Institute found that if the average American substituted a third of their beef consumption with pork, poultry or legumes, their diet-caused emissions will be reduced by approximately 13 percent.

But, naturally, becoming vegan, a vegetarian, or even a pescetarian will have the most dramatic impact on your carbon footprint.

Last but crucial food-related pointers

Try to opt for seasonal and locally-grown produce. While the actual content of your diet bears more significance than where it comes from, shipping and transportation of foods nonetheless generate an immense level of CO2 emissions. What products are recommended to buy in each season will vary depending on your location.

Don’t waste food! Try to plan your purchases based on your estimated needs. In the U.S., for instance, people throw out an average of 20 percent of the food they buy, which means a tremendous amount of production-energy is generated for no reason.

Finally, for Pete’s sake, figure out how to recycle properly. Recycling is in no way a substitute for reducing waste in the first place and adjusting our diets, but it can certainly shrink our carbon footprint if done accurately. Misplacing recyclable materials in bins can cause greater damage than not recycling at all, so be sure to consult the website of your local municipality for instructions about how to recycle correctly. And, as many neighbourhoods have no plastic-bag recycling capabilities yet, using reusable shopping bags is highly recommended.

Bon appétit!