Are gene drives a salvation against pests or do they pose catastrophic risks for the eco-system and human health and welfare?
You decide. The New York Times promotes the technology, albeit offering some reservations buried deep in their mostly celebratory article:
Nicholas Wade, Gene Drives Offer New Hope Against Diseases and Crop Pests, The New York Times, December 21, 2015, accessed December 22, 2015It appears that the FBI and Pentagon are particularly concerned about out-of-control gene drives:
Biologists in the United States and Europe are developing a revolutionary genetic technique that promises to provide an unprecedented degree of control over insect-borne diseases and crop pests.
The technique involves a mechanism called a gene drive system, which propels a gene of choice throughout a population. No gene drives have yet been tested in the wild, but in laboratory organisms like the fruit fly, they have converted almost the entire population to carry the favored version of a gene….
….A harder issue than containment is how to assess the ecological effect of gene drive systems. Even something as apparently benign as eliminating mosquitoes could have ecological effects “because mosquitoes interact with other species,” said Kevin Esvelt, a biochemist at Harvard….
A Plan for Backing Out
It may seem that once a gene drive system is released, it can never be recalled. But this may not be entirely true. Biologists are working on the concepts of “reversal drives” and “immunizing drives.” A reversal drive would cut out an errant drive and restore the target organism almost to its previous state. An immunizing drive would attack and pre-emptively change the DNA sequence targeted by the rogue drive.
A group of biologists proposed last year that before any gene drive system is released into the environment, its designers should prepare a standby reversal drive. But critics suggested that the availability of reversal drives might make people overconfident — and in any case, they might not work as advertised….
Sharon Begley, “Why the FBA and Pentagon are Afraid of this New Technology,” Stat November 12, 2015, http://www.statnews.com/2015/11/12/gene-drive-bioterror-risk/An implicit concern is that humans could be the target of gene drives by nefarious elements.
A powerful new genetic technology could eliminate scourges such as malaria and rid entire countries of destructive invasive species. But officials from the FBI to the Pentagon to the United Nations bioweapons office, STAT has learned, are concerned about the potential of “gene drives” to alter evolution in ways scientists can’t imagine, and even offer a devastating new tool to bioterrorists. Now they are scrambling to get ahead of it.
The Pentagon’s shoot-for-the-moon research-funding arm, DARPA, though enthusiastic about the potential benefits of gene drives, is studying approaches that could halt them if they went out of control and threatened ecological havoc.
A special agent from the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, which works to prevent nuclear, chemical, and biological attacks, is scheduled to brief a scientific panel in Washington next week that is advising the government on how to regulate gene drives. The bureau declined to comment on its interest in the technology...
Neither article directly addresses what I consider the scariest risks of gene drives, described in this article published in 2014:
Kenneth A. Oye, Kevin Esvelt,Evan Appleton,4 Flaminia Catteruccia,George Church, Todd Kuiken,Shlomiya Bar-Yam Lightfoot,Julie McNamara,Andrea Smidler,and James P. Collins sciencemag.org SCIENCE, 345(6197), AUGUST 2014 http://wyss.harvard.edu/staticfiles/documents/Science-Oye.pdfThe risk that gene drives might affect non-targeted organisms is truly terrifying. Can you imagine if infertility gene drives targeted at insects drift into human populations.
Non-targeted wild organisms. In theory, precision drives could limit alterations to targeted populations, but the reliability of these methods in preventing spread to non-target or related populations will require assessment. To what extent and over what period of time might cross-breeding or lateral gene transfer allow a drive to move beyond target populations? Might it subsequently evolve to regain drive capabilities in populations not originally targeted? There may also be unintended ecological side effects. Contained field trials should be performed before releasing organisms bearing a drive that spreads the trait. (p. 626)
Of course, gene drives take generations to unfold so its possible we'll have accidentally engineered our extinction through our extractive, "innovative" technologies before any human consequences of gene drives would be apparent.
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