'Gene drives' could circumvent anti-GMO hysteria but present unique risks

| | October 10, 2014

Wouldn't it be great if scientists could genetically engineer mosquitoes to be immune to the malaria parasite, thus protecting people from that disease? How about restoring the effectiveness of a pesticide by eliminating resistance genes in weeds and insect pests? Or altering genomes to eradicate a pesky invasive species?

These are exactly the sorts of things that a new biotechnological tool could do-and that's got some people worried.

In eLIFE, a team of researchers led by the Harvard biotechnologist Kevin Esvelt outlines a system that uses the new CRISPR gene editing technique to alter the genomes of wild populations of plants and animals. CRISPR is based on bacterial genes and proteins that can identify and cut any desired segment of DNA in an organism's genome. Appropriately configured and guided, it can replace any gene with a newly engineered version. Esvelt and company want to use CRISPR to construct "gene drives" that can quickly spread beneficial engineered genes through sexually reproducing populations. A gene drive works by making sure that both copies of a targeted natural gene are replaced with the engineered version.

Naturally, the development of a technology this powerful freaks some people out. The Hastings Center bioethicist Gregory E. Kaebnick told The Boston Globe that he "would be opposed to playing around with this technology unless there are very significant benefits."

Gene drives could go wrong, as Esvelt and his colleagues acknowledge. Engineered drives might spread to non-targeted species through interbreeding. Suppression drives that aim to crash a population of an invasive species might spread back to that species' natural habitat. Bad guys might try to use gene drives to damage crops and livestock. And then there's the possibility that gene drives might be used to alter the genetics of human beings.

Read full, original article: Let's Play God!

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