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World-changing Gene Drives

The next great craze in humanity's efforts to engineer its world may just be gene drives. And these things have the potential to be awesome, offering the chance to wipe out diseases like malaria and invasive species like the Asian carp, at least in certain regions, and any number of other deadly or problematic pests. A gene drive effort would involve using CRISPR/CAS9 genome editing to modify the genome of some select specimens of the unseemly pest, disabling or hindering their reproductive capability or building up resistance to parasites through highly heritable genes, and then releasing those into the wild to spread the gene drive throughout the population.

Although it cannot be used in asexual animals, such as bacteria or viruses, and in animals that are slow to reproduce, it could take decades or more for the effects to kick in, CRISPR-based gene drives could still be incredibly powerful tools.

Several prominent genomics and genetic engineering minds and policy experts have taken to the science press to introduce gene drives to the world, to urge caution, and to "start a public conversation" about them.

In new papers published last Thursday in Science and eLife, and in a piece in Scientific American, these scientists explain how gene drives work and how they could be made safe, but also argue regulations should be in place before these modified organisms are unleashed on the world's wild populations.

Harvard's George Church, who was an author on both the journal articles and the SciAm piece, tells the New York Times that the thing that could really put a damper on this field would be "making a really big mistake."

The Science article says there is a need for regulatory reform before gene drives can get put into action that would address ecological and security-related concerns, and that the regulatory authority for each separate drive should fall under the government agency with the expertise to evaluate each question.

As Elizabeth Pennisi notes in Science's news section, a year ago the European Food Safety Authority released a six-step protocol for environmental assessments of genetically modified organisms, which should include organisms with gene drives.

"People are beginning to think through these issues," says Austin Burt, an evolutionary geneticist at Imperial College London who helped pioneer the concept behind using gene drives for good.

Not everyone is so enthusiastic about turning gene drives loose in the world.

"This is a much more open-ended kind of use, because the context is the environment itself," Gregory Kaebnick, a research scholar at the Hastings Center, tells the Boston Globe. "I would be opposed to playing around with this technology unless there are very significant benefits."