Changing DNA – The Gene Drive Revolution Comes Full Circle
by Guest Blogger,
Tyler Kokjohn, Ph.D.
CRISPR-Cas9-based genetic editing technologies provide unparalleled power to manipulate the genetic code of living organisms (1). Recognizing their immense potential, scientists seized on the new tools to exploit and improve them. The pace of discovery and innovation has been stunning and it seems clear the scientific community is unprepared to manage this fast-evolving technology (2).
A few years ago, gene drives, artificial, autonomous gene editing contraptions able to alter the DNA of entire populations of wild organisms, were theoretical. Operational gene drives have now been constructed and tested, an event which produced a sharp public controversy among scientists regarding the specific measures necessary to keep these agents safely confined to the laboratory or eradicate them if necessary (3). This technology is entirely novel and although the work was done in full accord with existing biosafety rules, specific guidelines for the conduct and full containment of gene drive experiments are in development. Months after these events the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine issued a report suggesting research on gene drives be pursued cautiously because this technology poses unknown dangers (4). The scientific community must now catch up to fast-moving events and devise procedures to safely govern gene drive research programs.
Researchers are subject to regulations and active oversight to ensure their investigations are conducted safely and ethically. Research rationales, methods and safety measures must be evaluated independently and approved by committees of scientific peers before work begins. However, judging the merits of gene drive research objectively, assessing the risks and benefits of the projects along with deciding on the adequacy of safety measures will be challenging when oversight committee members have no uniform guidelines and limited experience in this fast-developing area. This situation is untenable.
A commentary addressing the specific issue of gene drive research by Dr. Kevin Esvelt, a leading scientist in the development of this technology, was published recently in the scientific journal Nature (2). Dr. Esvelt notes that even scientists may not be able to recognize the full implications of their works and points out several critical shortcomings in how the scientific research enterprise currently functions. He suggests coping with the novel challenges of gene drive research will demand scientists work in fundamentally different ways and offers ideas as to how go forward (2, 5).
Recognizing the potentially earth-shattering consequences of gene drive releases on ecosystems, Dr. Esvelt and colleagues are launching the Responsive Science Project. This effort will provide a mechanism for gene drive investigators to devise and critique their research plans openly and collaboratively. Rather than relying on the traditional, insular approach currently used by scientists, the Responsive Science Project is intended to actively foster collective interactions to develop and, when necessary, modify the experimental strategies used in gene drive research projects. Dr. Esvelt’s concept is every bit as revolutionary as the gene drive technology he has helped create.
It is unclear whether gene drive scientists will abandon tradition and adopt Dr. Esvelt’s suggestions because there are strong incentives for them to continue operating in semi-secret isolation. Perhaps federal funding agencies will make participation in the Responsive Science Project a prerequisite for funding. Whether private foundations or corporations involved with gene drive research would ever consider divulging research plans or be deterred by requirements for publication in scientific journals is highly uncertain. However, it is clear the sometimes chaotic traditional approaches may not ensure the safe development and productive deployment gene drive technology.
Gene drives may provide extraordinarily far-reaching capacities to re-write the DNA of natural environments. Dr. Esvelt is calling on his colleagues to do nothing less than actively engineer equally momentous changes to the scientific community ‘ecosystem’ itself. The revolution has swiftly come full circle. Pursuing research and development of gene drives may force the scientific community revise the very DNA of its traditional business practices.
(1) H. Ledford. 2016. CRISPR: Gene Editing is Just the Beginning. Nature, 7 March 2016. http://www.nature.com/news/crispr-gene-editing-is-just-the-beginning-1.19510
(2) K. Esvelt. 2016 Gene Editing Can Drive Science to Openness. Nature, 8 June 2016. http://www.nature.com/news/gene-editing-can-drive-science-to-openness-1.20043
(3) J. Bohannon. 2015. ‘Chain Reaction’ Spreads Gene Through Insects. Science, 19 March 2015. http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2015/03/chain-reaction-spreads-gene-through-insects
(4) H. Ledford. 2016. Fast-Spreading Genetic Mutations Pose Ecological Risk. Nature, 8 June 2016. http://www.nature.com/news/fast-spreading-genetic-mutations-pose-ecological-risk-1.20053?WT.mc_id=TWT_NatureNews
(5) A. Regalado. 2016. Meet the Moralist Policing Gene Drives, a Technology That Messes with Evolution. MIT Technology Review, 7 June 2016. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/601634/meet-the-moralist-policing-gene-drives-a-technology-that-messes-with-evolution/
More about gene drives on JayVay – https://jayvay.wordpress.com/2016/05/16/gene-drives-will-conqueror-biomolecular-bots-dictate-a-new-book-of-life/