By Kevin Esvelt
Just as a single tongue of flame can grow into a raging wildfire, the tragedy of COVID-19 has demonstrated the power of self-spreading biology. While most current efforts necessarily focus on stemming the flames, we have an opportunity to prepare for a future in which natural self-spreading agents are joined by the engineered variety.
To be clear: We don’t currently know how to build new pandemic agents. If we’re lucky, we never will. What we can do—the technology that could set a precedent for safety and ethics—is edit the DNA of organisms in the lab in ways that, if released, would cause those edits to spread through wild populations of the species. From blocking the transmission of diseases to controlling pests without toxic poisons, ecological editing could offer humane ways to benefit health and the environment.