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The discovery of a powerful new tool capable of addressing health and environmental problems as diverse as malaria, Lyme disease, and invasive species should be a cause for celebration. But, because the tool, called CRISPR, can alter entire populations of wild organisms (and thus shared ecosystems), ensuring that these interventions are developed responsibly poses an unprecedented challenge for science and society.
Humans have been altering animals and plants through selective breeding for millennia; but, because these changes typically reduce the capacity for survival and reproduction in the wild, they do not spread to wild populations.
Alterations accomplished using CRISPR, which enables scientists to edit a cell’s DNA with unprecedented precision, are different in one crucial respect: The process can result in “gene drive,” a naturally occurring feature of some genes that enables them to spread through a population over generations, even if they do not help survival (and thus reproduction).
Simply put, we can now contemplate altering wild populations in very specific and consequential ways. Those changes can be highly positive. By altering certain features of mosquitos, we could reduce or even eradicate ancient scourges such as malaria and dengue that afflict hundreds of millions of people each year.
Nowadays, there are few opportunities for public input until after products are developed, when it is typically too late to make changes. By ignoring potentially helpful contributions from an increasingly knowledgeable public, closed-door technological development has precluded balanced assessments and created acrimony — a dangerously irresponsible and wasteful outcome for both science and society.
Read full, original post: Science must not get ahead of the public as gene editing becomes real