Altering Wild Populations through “Gene Drives” – Weighing the Risks
|November 24, 2014|
THIRD WORLD NETWORK BIOSAFETY INFORMATION SERVICE
“Gene drives” enable traits to spread rapidly through wild populations over many generations. The use of genetically engineered gene drives has, to date, remained largely theoretical due to technical constraints. However technological advances have meant that powerful and efficient techniques for genome engineering can be applied to enable
Because gene drives offer the prospect of manipulating many generations of a wild species, the risks have to be very carefully weighed against the potential benefits. In a paper published in the journaleLife, scientists from Havard call for public debate on gene drives. Given the potential for gene drives to alter entire wild populations and therefore ecosystems, they affirm that the development of this technology must include robust safeguards and methods of control.
Another paper simultaneously published in the journal Science, written by the same authors together with others including policy experts, outlines the limitations of the technology as well as regulatory gaps that need to be first addressed. The scientists recommend that regulators adopt “a function-based approach that defines risk in terms of the ability to influence any key biological component the loss of which would be sufficient to cause harm to humans or other species of interest.” They caution that “gene drives present environmental and security challenges” and cite 10 steps to manage these risks, stressing that “It is crucial that this rapidly developing technology is evaluated before its use outside the laboratory becomes a reality”.
An article on this issue is reproduced below as Item 1 while the abstract and excerpts from the two journal papers appear as Items 2 and 3, respectively.
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Harvard scientists want gene-manipulation debateBy
The Boston Globe, July 17, 2014
A powerful new technology could be used to “edit” the genomes of organisms in the wild, enabling researchers to block mosquitoes’ ability to spread malaria, for example, or make weeds more vulnerable to pesticides, Harvard scientists proposed Thursday.
Concerning RNA-guided gene drives for the alteration of wild populations
Gene drives may be capable of addressing ecological problems by altering entire populations of wild organisms, but their use has remained largely theoretical due to technical constraints. Here we consider the potential for RNA-guided gene drives based on the CRISPR nuclease Cas9 to serve as a general method for spreading altered traits through wild populations over many generations. We detail likely capabilities, discuss limitations, and provide novel precautionary strategies to control the spread of gene drives and reverse genomic changes. The ability to edit populations of sexual species would offer substantial benefits to humanity and the environment. For example, RNA-guided gene drives could potentially prevent the spread of disease, support agriculture by reversing pesticide and herbicide resistance in insects and weeds, and control damaging invasive species. However, the possibility of unwanted ecological effects and near-certainty of spread across political borders demand careful assessment of each potential application. We call for thoughtful, inclusive, and well-informed public discussions to explore the responsible use of this currently theoretical technology.
Kenneth A. Oye, Kevin Esvelt, Evan Appleton, Flaminia Catteruccia, George Church, Todd Kuiken, Shlomiya Bar-Yam Lightfoot, Julie McNamara, Andrea Smidler, James P. Collins
[EXCERPTS]Genes in sexually reproducing organisms normally have, on average, a 50% chance of being inherited, but some genes have a higher chance of being inherited. These “selfish” genes can increase in relative frequency in a population even if they reduce the odds that each organism will reproduce. Aided by technological advances, scientists are investigating how similar methods might be used to alter populations by adding, disrupting, or editing genes and to suppress populations by propagating traits that reduce reproductive capacity. Potential beneficial uses of such “gene drives” include reprogramming mosquito genomes to eliminate malaria, reversing the development of pesticide and herbicide resistance, and locally eradicating invasive species. However, drives may present environmental and security challenges as well as benefits.