“Gene Drive” Technology Endorsed by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine

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The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine last week endorsed research on a technology known as “gene drive,” which gives humans the power for the first time to alter or eliminate entire populations of organisms in the wild–like mosquitoes, mice or plants–through deliberate genetic manipulation.

For centuries, people have tinkered in ever more precise ways with the genetic makeup of living things already well under our control: pets, farm animals, crops and assorted species of laboratory animals. But modifying wild animals has been stymied by the inability to induce the mating of organisms not under our dominion.

Gene drives overcome this limitation by ensuring that the chunk of genetic code containing them is transmitted to all of an individual’s offspring, even if it reduces their fitness or causes their annihilation. By linking pieces of DNA to the gene driver with new editing tools that make them easy to insert, scientists think they can spread desired traits through an entire wild species.

But the report by an advisory panel of ethicists, biologists and others for the NAS, which advises the federal government, underscores that there is not enough evidence about gene drives to justify the release of an altered living thing beyond the laboratory or controlled field experiments.

Scientists and environmental advocates alike noted that while the report did a good job of laying out the many questions raised by gene drives, it did not provide many answers. Some independent scientists say the report strikes a good balance by permitting more gene drive research while limiting the use of the technology.

But opponents of widespread genetic engineering argue that the panel should have demanded a halt to this type of genetic editing, which has become feasible only in the last few years with the advent of the Crispr-Cas9 tool.

Some biologists have called for using gene drive to eradicate the Aedes aegypti mosquito that transmits the Zika virus as well as other pathogens, by spreading a gene that determines whether mosquitoes become male, reducing the number of females until the species can no longer reproduce.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which helped pay for the report, has spent some $40 million on a gene drive project aimed at eradicating the species of mosquitoes that spread malaria.

Monday, June 13, 2016 / Vol. 24 / No. 23