Can genetic modification save wildlife and eradicate infectious disease? In a recent New York Times article, Carl Zimmer explained how gene editing can be used to manipulate traits within mosquito populations, which could revolutionize the battle against malaria.
“CRISPR” can precisely target a specific gene, which can be turned on or off, or modified. As the organism reproduces naturally, the gene is passed on and propagated through a population, even if the trait is not advantageous to survival. The GLP’s Tabitha M. Powledge described what CRISPR is and how it works and what its future holds in a column just last week.
CRISPR is already being used to target malaria. By inserting genes for malaria resistance into the genomes of mosquitoes, scientists can use the fast reproducing pesky insects to diminish the prevalence of the deadly disease, which they carry. Another use of CRISPR is in controlling populations of harmful invasive species, such as zebra mussels in the Great Lakes, by introducing genes that will make them sterile.
Both of these applications promise significant benefits to public health and environmental protection. Most scientists embrace these innovations as inexpensive, precise and revolutionary. But some advocacy groups are campaigning hard to kill or heavily restrict these technological breakthroughs, arguing that they pose too many dangers.
The most vociferous anti-CRISPR advocacy group is the Center for Genetics and Society, which takes a conservative, precautionary view of almost all genetic technologies, warning against both human and agricultural biotechnology. Pete Shanks, writing in CGS’ Biopolitical Times, says that the risks may outweigh the gains, arguing it can be difficult and even dangerous to accurately predict what effect a “gene drive,” the gene that is introduced into a population, will have on a sensitive ecosystem.
“These potentially huge environmental interventions deserve broad and careful consideration,” he recently wrote. “And we do not have an adequate regulatory structure, nor a robust political or cultural tradition, nationally or internationally, to handle the novel questions involved.”
For the most part, mainstream scientists disagree as CRISPR has been pursued cautiously. Shanks’s concern about the safety of genome engineering is not wholly unfounded; after all, any new technology should be pursed with appropriate caution and deliberation. But that’s not what CGS is arguing for. No matter how much care is taken in practice, genetic technologies may never be safe enough as far as Shanks is concerned.
The views of Shanks and the CGS are increasingly out of step with the mainstream science community. In a forum on gene drive regulation, the American Association for the Advancement of Science states that it is possible for safety regulations to promote the advancement of gene drive technology without limiting its potential, if the public is informed.
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, lead time will allow for broadly inclusive and well-informed public discussion to determine if, when, and how gene drives should be used.
In a blog post for Scientific American, George Church, Kevin Esvelt, and Jeantine Lunshof of Harvard University advocate for case-by-case evaluations of gene drives.
…It doesn’t really make sense to ask whether we should use gene drives. Rather, we’ll need to ask whether it’s a good idea to consider driving though this particular change through this particular population.
The beneficial potential of gene drives may be offset by “risks of accidental effects” or “intentional mismanagement” if measures are not taken to ensure responsible use of genome engineering.
Like any technology, genetic modification has the potential to produce either valuable or harmful outcomes depending on how it is used. That’s true about all innovations, however. Hyping fear of cataclysmic misuse serves ideological prejudices, not science or society.