Highlights

  • CIA invested in biotech firm through venture capital organisation
  • Colossal Biosciences aims to resurrect extinct animals like mammoth
  • Speculation of this technique one day allowing 'human enhancement'

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Speculation that USA's Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is hoping to create 'enhanced humans' has been sparked by the spy organisation's investment in a biotechnology company.

An Iron Man-like high-tech armour for American soldiers - this project failed after just 5 years. An experiment to control people's minds - full of drugs and torture - was a debacle in the 1950s and 60s. And now, USA's spy agency appears to be trying to make Captain America a reality - a super-soldier with enhanced strength and endurance.

Could this latest fantastical project actually be within the realm of possibility?

Speculation that the Central Intelligence Agency of USA is hoping to create 'enhanced humans' has been sparked by the spy organisation's investment in a biotechnology company.

The CIA has invested in a firm which aims to resurrect extinct animals. Colossal Biosciences is actively working on bringing mammoths back to life. The company also wants to bring back the thylacine and the dodo bird. Colossal is working on resurrecting these dead animals through DNA editing. If the project succeeds, the resulting animal will not be an authentic mammoth, but an elephant with key mammoth-like features.

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Colossal Biosciences is not the only biotech company in which CIA has invested money.

The spy agency is funding Ginkgo Bioworks which is trying to manufacture bacteria for biofuels. Then there is Claremont BioSolutions which produces DNA sequencing hardware. Another unusual investment is Clearista - a skincare product which removes a thin epidermal layer to reveal a fresher face, and also collect DNA from the removed skin cells.

CIA has also put money in Metabiota - a company which is using artificial intelligence to do infectious disease mapping and risk analysis. The others are Biomatrica and T2, both of which manufacture DNA testing components.

Out of all these, Colossal Biosciences has grabbed the most attention with its plan to bring back mammoths.

The company plans to resurrect the Ice Age animals using a technique called CRISPR. It is a DNA-editing method with which specific gene sequences in an organism's DNA can be cut out and replaced. Through this, characteristics and traits can either be added or removed.

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CRISPR has so far been used to modify plants, and scientists are trying to use it to treat genetic diseases in humans. But can it also be used as a weapon?

It is speculated that a future application of gene editing could be human enhancement. Improvement of certain physical features could create so-called 'super soldiers'. Such 'enhanced' soldiers could theoretically tolerate more pain, withstand extreme cold, or need less sleep than unenhanced humans. Vision, hearing, and muscle control could be other features that DNA editing may enhance. Experts have said that it may be easier to change the DNA of embryos than of that adults.

America is not the only country thinking about the possibility of an army full of enhanced soldiers.

In 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin had said that scientists could soon create a man with specific characteristics. He said that it could be a soldier who could fight without pain, fear, and regret.

In 2020, a top US official accused China of working on creating bio-enhanced soldiers. Then-US Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said that tests were being done on PLA soldiers.

The same year, France reportedly announced approval for developing 'enhanced soldiers'. A French minister defended the move saying that other countries do not share France's scruples, and so, the country must be ready.

But creation of a 'super soldier' is easier said than done.

One of the biggest challenges in this science is that it is hard to know the overall consequences of changing even a single gene. There is a very real possibility that enhancing one feature may lead to a serious disease like cancer later in life. It is also very difficult to isolate traits like height which are dictated by multiple genes. Another issue is that genetic changes - even those with harmful side-effects - will be passed down to future generations. But human 'enhancement' is still a long way from practical realisation.

However, some scientists have claimed to have already made big strides in the field.
In 2018, a Chinese scientist announced that he had successfully altered the DNA in the embryos of twin girls. The genetic change would make them immune to catching HIV. The scientist, named He Jiankui, was eventually jailed. This is because most countries, including China, have imposed bans on such gene-editing in humans.

But defence departments across the world are known to work in shadowy realms, beyond the reach of normal law enforcement. This is true especially when there is the possibility of creating a weapon which would give that country a big military advantage.

In USA's case, the Clinton administration presided over experiments on biological weapons which "tested the limits" of a 1972 ban, according to experts. Such experiments were expanded under Clinton's successor George W. Bush. The American government said that the projects aimed to improve the country's defence against bio-weapons. In 2010-11, USA's shady biotech projects spread beyond its borders, when the country organised a fake vaccination drive in Pakistan to secretly collect and analyse DNA to locate Osama bin Laden's family members.

Right now, it is not clear whether the CIA is betting big or small on DNA editing technologies.

The spy agency has invested money in Colossal Biosciences through In-Q-Tel, which is a non-profit venture capital firm. In-Q-Tel is funding many technology start-ups with an increasing interest in biotechnology and DNA editing, as per reports. However, the amount of CIA's investment in Colossal is still unknown. It might be revealed when In-Q-Tel releases its financial statements in 2023.

Officially, In-Q-Tel has not spoken about human enhancement, but said that such investments are aimed at giving the US an edge over competing nations which are also trying to read, write and alter genetic code. In-Q-Tel has also said that "biotechnology is critical for humanity to further develop".

In the quest to create 'super soldiers', science is just one hurdle. Experts have raised important moral and ethical questions which would need to be answered as well. Will soldiers have the freedom to refuse such dangerous testing? If the DNA of a human embryo is being changed, what about consent? Since our understanding of genetic science is far from being complete, will we be putting future generations at huge risk by tampering with DNA? Finally, if the threat of a nuclear holocaust was not enough, will we have to worry about a genetic apocalypse too?

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