It had scandal written all over it. Disclosed emails revealed that a covert coalition lobbying for relaxed regulations around a genetic extinction technology, with help from a well-funded public relations firm, Emerging Ag, was attempting to game the system and manipulate the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). That was the spin in press releases (see here, here, and here) issued last week by several watchdog groups that want a moratorium on research related to gene drives, which could enable bioengineers to increase the odds of passing down genes to offspring. The people in the supposed covert coalition say it’s nothing of the sort, they have no interest in gaming the system, and that their opponents are manipulating the truth. “It’s complete bullshit,” says Todd Kuiken, a synthetic biology researcher at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, who is a central target of the criticisms. “It’s asinine.”
Kuiken is a member of the CBD’s Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Synthetic Biology (AHTEG), which met last week in Montreal, Canada. Like other proponents of gene drives, Kuiken contends that they could help control disease, remove invasive species, and create pest-resistant crops. “They’re trying to slander my name,” he asserts.
A member of the AHTEG who resigned, longtime biosafety activist Edward Hammond of Austin, used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain a trove of Kuiken’s emails. Hammond called the emails “the Gene Drive Files,” which he posted on his website, Prickly Research. The emails disclose that Emerging Ag is working with Kuiken and other AHTEG members to help recruit scientists to an open online forum on synthetic biology meant to inform the CBD. The public relations firm—which the critics note was given $1.6 million by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to “increase awareness, understanding, and acceptance of possible gene drive applications for public good purposes”—also coordinates responses to postings on the online forum that are critical of gene drives. Other emails discuss gene drive research projects funded by the U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.