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An illustration of Kevin Esvelt. Rebecca Clarke for Vox

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Kevin Esvelt wants to make the world safe from — and for — biotechnology

Employing cryptography to ensure that CRISPR is used for good.

Bryan Walsh is an editorial director at Vox overseeing the climate, tech, and world teams, and is the editor of Vox’s Future Perfect section. He worked at Time magazine for 15 years as a foreign correspondent in Asia, a climate writer, and an international editor, and he wrote a book on existential risk.

Evolution is Kevin Esvelt’s passion: how it works in nature, how we can direct it, and how it can go wrong.

At Harvard’s Wyss Institute in 2013, Esvelt came up with the idea of using the new gene-editing tool CRISPR to streamline the process of implementing “gene drives“ in species. It’s an approach to genetic engineering that commandeers evolution to direct the propagation of a specific set of genes by altering the probability that certain traits will be passed onto offspring.

By using gene drives on the species of mosquitos that are most responsible for malaria transmission to ensure all their offspring are male — thus quickly eliminating the female mosquitoes that can transmit the malaria parasite — potentially hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved every year.

It was a major achievement that eventually helped land him on MIT Technology Review’s 35 Innovators Under 35. But, he told Inverse in 2020, “after that first day of euphoria, I started to get worried.” CRISPR was not only more precise than previous gene-editing tools; it was comparatively easy to use. Which meant that Esvelt had just inadvertently opened the door to gene drive uses that could have catastrophic consequences, whether intended or otherwise.

That realization took Esvelt’s career in a different direction. The man who had helped devise what could potentially be one of the most far-reaching applications of genetic engineering became obsessed with exploring the dark side of his field. He noticed, as he never had before, that much of the most important research in his field was carried out in near-secrecy. There was no easy way to know if a scientist was doing something potentially risky until they had published their work, by which time it might be too late.

Beyond raising awareness about the potential risks of gene drives — and ensuring that his own work in the field included public discussions about those risks — Esvelt became increasingly active in biosecurity. He argues that as it becomes easier and easier to modify or synthesize potentially dangerous viruses in a lab, we can no longer count on the good intentions of scientists to save us. We needed to better control access to the biological information that, thanks to these tools, had suddenly become far more dangerous.

Among his proposals to counter existential risk from biosecurity are the Nucleic Acid Observatory, which would monitor the emergence of dangerous pathogens through metagenomic screening of wastewater and waterways. Then there’s more advanced preparation for pandemics before they happen, through better personal protective equipment and next-generation vaccines. And most novel of all is SecureDNA, an encrypted tool that would screen all synthetic DNA sequence orders to major gene vendors to prevent anyone from obtaining the genes needed to make a threatening pathogen.

Evolution, Esvelt has said, isn’t actively trying to harm us, even if it can sometimes produce pathogens that can kill in mass numbers. But evolution directed by a human — even one with the best intentions — could unleash something that would be far, far worse. And it’s Esvelt’s mission to prevent that from happening.