A new laboratory technique enables biologists to “edit” the genetic makeup of entire species for purposes ranging from the benevolent to the nefarious, with the “potential to cause ecological mayhem,” Antonio Regalado reports in MIT Technology Review.

“Gene drive,” Regalado writes in a review of current articles on the topic, “would cause chosen genes, including man-made ones, to quickly spread through a species as its members reproduce.” He cites a new report in Science that gives background on the method:

[A] gene drive involves stimulating biased inheritance of particular genes to alter entire populations of organisms. It was first proposed more than a decade ago, and researchers have been developing gene drive approaches to alter mosquitoes to slow the spread of malaria and dengue fever. Although progress has been quite slow, recent advances in gene editing could lead to a rapid application of gene drive approaches to other species.

Researchers have already used the method to design mosquitos that produce only male offspring “with the idea of releasing them in the wild to cause a population crash, thereby reducing malaria,” Regalado explains. Any number of other ends could be imagined.

Regalado quotes James Collins, an expert in genetic engineering at Arizona State University, as saying in an editorial: “gene drives present environmental and security challenges.” A separate article cited by Regalado has experts warning that “[t]he possibility of unwanted ecological effects and near-certainty of spread across political borders demand careful assessment of each potential application.”

Regalado puts the cause for concern plainly:

The fear is that the gene drives might run amok and affect wild populations of plants, animals, or insects. The faster an organism reproduces, the quicker a gene could spread. Any gene variants given an artificial boost could eliminate other versions of those genes, whose potential evolutionary importance scientists have no idea of. Also, the technology could be used to create weapons that destroy agricultural crops or create super pests.

In consideration of these dangers, some scientists are calling for a voluntary moratorium on development of the technique “until its safety is better understood,” just as scientists did in the 1970s when they learned how to alter DNA, Regalado writes. “Today, genetic research is moving even faster, but with few if any constraints on laboratory science.”

Scientists in an editorial cited by Regalado asked for help from regulators and the rest of the scientific community in controlling their creation:

For emerging technologies that affect the global commons, concepts and applications should be published in advance of construction, testing, and release. This lead time enables public discussion of environmental and security concerns, research into areas of uncertainty, and development and testing of safety features. It allows adaptation of regulations and conventions in light of emerging information on benefits, risks, and policy gaps. Most important, in the case of gene drives, lead time will allow for broadly inclusive and well informed public discussion to determine when and how gene driver should be used. 

— Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

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