Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Gene Drives: Frankensteinian or Salvation "Innovative" Technology?


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, 2015
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….
It appears that the FBI and Pentagon are particularly concerned about out-of-control gene drives:
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/

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...
An implicit concern is that humans could be the target of gene drives by nefarious elements.

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.pdf

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)
The 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.

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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3 comments:

  1. I should really dig back into the past to the days when there was a great deal of genuine enthusiasm about the atomic discoveries. Those were the days! And they culminated with Hiroshima and Nagasaki which no one in the early times envisioned. I fear for humanity every time some big discovery comes along that is going to do wonders for all of us. Meanwhile the bees are disappearing as a result of some earlier wonders. Malformed kids in India due to radiation--a situation kept very well hidden. Will we have time even to make an appraisal of all this science & technology or will we be cut down too soon?

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    Replies
    1. I'm thinking "cut down too soon."

      The story from India is tragic.

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  2. Living creatures on this world are fragile. Always have beeñ. The toughness was always hyperboleyed by humans. Just one cut. Drinking the wrong water. A strange bug or virus. People as a group started living longer after the invention and widespread use of antiobiotics and vaccinations in countries rapidly becoming polluted by insustrial excess. Therevwas extreme lack of environmental concern.

    The advent of antibiotic use and vaccinations began in the 1940s. It coincindentally started with the full committment of the new war mongering industrial countries to the evil atomic age after ww2.

    Lucky in some respects there were antibiotics and vaccinations. By the time of fullscale open air atomic testing, with all the fluoride in the water in the 50s, the tetraethyl lead in air by the 40s50s and 60s in major cities. The pesticicide everywhere. By the 50s human immune systems in mostbof the united states were under full attack. There may have been huge mortality events in places like the eastern united states without vaccinations or antibiotics.


    The human immune system was in the preliminary stages of succumbing to the extreme environment stress of mass industrial environmental pollution and extreme effects from radioactive pollution and heavy metal pollution. There probably would have been larger mortality events than there already were.

    Now the environment is saturated with radionucleides in a great deal of the united states. The antibiotics are not working so well.

    I feel gene drive are a pipe dream and another hyped up joke with the amount of tritium and other radionucleides around. Too much dna and rna damage going on. It may work a little while but it will fizzle. No way for biochemical processes to get past a certain point because of mutations and poisoning of biochemical processes with heavy metals.

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