Gene Drives – Will Scientists Slam On the Brakes?

Gene Drives – Will Scientists Slam On the Brakes?

by Guest Blogger,
Tyler Kokjohn, Ph.D.

stopGene drives may bestow to humankind a radically new manner of dominion over nature.  Future engineers might use this capacity to tinker or totally re-edit the genes of wild organisms with consequences conceivably ranging from essentially undetectable to the premeditated genocide of entire species.  That is just what we can conceive of, the full ecological impacts of gene drive releases may only become known with time and some might not be reversible.

A recently released U. S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report on gene drive research notes their possible environmental impacts and risks are not understood (1, 2).  Adopting the position the potential benefits warrant continuing gene drive research and field trials, the panel advised more work is required before any releases are considered.  A formal call for caution in the face of such potentially momentous uncertainties is justified, but the overall stance of the Academy toward gene drives probably surprised no one.  It is not big news when an organization dedicated to scientific research and development proposes more research and development.

Along with the predictable has come something new.  Both the National Academy and key opinion leaders are encouraging gene drive researchers to openly develop and share their best practices (1, 2, 3).   Dr. Kevin Esvelt and colleagues are launching a web-based gene drive resource, The Responsive Science Project, to promote and cultivate collective interactions between researchers.  Analogous to the proactive roles played by Institutional Biosafety Committees (IBC) and Institutional Review Boards (IRB) in the oversight of research, this effort will provide a mechanism to enable gene drive work plans to be reviewed by peers before work is conducted.  However, the Responsive Science Project scope is much greater than that of any local IBC and IRB and could potentially encompass many, perhaps all, organizations conducting gene drive research and development.

The velocity of gene drive research advances is breathtaking.  Less than a week after the National Academy report was released, an article posted in New Scientist publicized the creation of a new type of structurally segmented gene drive, an entity with some internal brakes (4).  In principle these curbed-dispersal creations would allow impacts to remain more precisely focused geographically and pose less risk to the greater environment because they slowly die out over time.  However, it is important to recognize that these reassuring ideas are actually hypotheses and not yet valid strategies or rationales for the use of gene drives.  Where gene drives will take us, and leave us, is completely unknown.

The new daisy-chain concept may add an important safety feature to gene drives, but equally important, Dr. Esvelt and his colleagues disclosed their plans in advance and in public on the Responsive Science Project web site (4, 5).  Will their peers heed the call to openness?  The ultimate fate of The Responsive Science Project rides on getting the full support of scientists, funding agencies and the scientific publishing enterprise.  It is unclear if the scientific community will slam on the brakes both for gene drives and the push to conduct research in a more open manner.

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(1)    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

(2)    Committee on Gene Drive Research in Non-Human Organisms: Recommendations for Responsible Conduct; Board on Life Sciences; Division on Earth and Life Studies; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.  2016. Gene Drives on the Horizon: Advancing Science, Navigating Uncertainty, and Aligning Research with Public Values.  http://nas-sites.org/gene-drives/ (Free download)

(3)    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

(4)    M. Le Page.  2016.  ‘Daisy-Chain’ Drive Vanishes After Only a Few Generations.  New Scientist, 16 June 2016.  https://www.newscientist.com/article/2093963-daisy-chain-gene-drive-vanishes-after-only-a-few-generations/

(5)    C. Noble et al., 2016.  Daisy Chain Gene Drives for the Alteration of Local Populations. http://www.responsivescience.org/pub/daisydrives

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Provide your input to the Committee on Gene Drive Research in Non-Human Organisms (Committee) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine http://nas-sites.org/gene-drives/2015/08/11/provide-comments/or genedrivestudy@nas.edu

 

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