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Not Ready for Release

More research into the ecological and other effects of gene drives is needed before they should be deployed, according to a report from the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

"It is not ready — and we are not ready — for any kind of release," committee co-chair Elizabeth Heitman from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine tells Nature News. "There is a lot of work that needs to be done."

Gene drives have been proposed as a way to, for instance, control diseases like malaria and, now, Zika that are spread by mosquitos. The drives would introduce a mutation to spread though the mosquito population to decimate its numbers and limit disease transmission.

Under commission by the National Institutes of Health and the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, NAS convened a committee and hosted a number of workshops to discuss gene-drive technology. It has now has released a report that found that there isn't enough evidence to support the release of gene-drive modified organisms into the environment.

"The potential for gene drives to spread throughout a population, to persist in the environment, and to cause irreversible effects on organisms and ecosystems calls for a robust method to assess risks," the report says. The potential benefit of the technology, though, warrants further study in the lab and through tightly controlled field trials, it adds.

The report goes on to recommend that researchers strictly guard against accidental release of gene-drive modified organisms with multiple containment layers and consult with the public on such experiments.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Kevin Esvelt tells Technology Review that though the report has the right idea, it should've gone even further. Since one modified organism can spread its gene drive throughout its population, "a release anywhere may well be equivalent to a release everywhere," he says. He argues that anyone developing a gene drive should thus make those plans public before embarking on the work.