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Capable of Spreading Widely

One of the initial proponents of using gene drives to contain invasive species says the approach may be too risky, the New York Times reports.

"I feel like I've blown it," MIT's Kevin Esvelt tells the Times. He adds that advocating for using gene drives in that way was "an embarrassing mistake."

In a paper appearing at the preprint server BioRxiv, Esvelt and his colleagues modeled how CRISPR-based gene drives might move through populations. Gene drives aim to introduce a gene variant that renders the invasive species infertile and thus drives down its numbers. The approach has been under consideration to control mosquito, mouse, and other populations.

But in their analysis, Esvelt and his colleagues found that even a small number of gene drives would quickly move through a local population and then move on to other populations connected by low levels of gene flow. That is, small releases of gene drives "are capable of far-reaching — perhaps, for species distributed worldwide, global — spread," the researchers say.

Esvelt tells the Times that this suggests that field testing gene drives could be too risky. Over at PLOS Biology, Esvelt and University of Otago's Neil Gemmell argue in a commentary against using gene drives to control pests like rats, mice, stoats and possums that plague New Zealand, as is being considered. "It would be a profound tragedy if New Zealanders — or anyone else — inadvertently caused an international incident and consequent loss of public confidence in scientists and governance that interfered with its use," they write.

Still, Esvelt notes that there could be a way forward if the gene drive technology could be improved. Wired notes that the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has awarded $65 million to study gene drives, including ways to make the approach safer.