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Regulation, and Clearer Regulation

In an opinion article appearing in the New York Times, the City University of New York's Elizabeth Alter argues that better oversight of gene drives and genome editing is needed.

She says that CRISPR-Cas9 and related tools are allowing "us to bend evolution to our will." For instance, she notes that researchers at Harvard are developing gene drives that, if they work, would re-engineer mosquitos so they are resistant to malaria and then spread that trait throughout the mosquito population. But, Alter notes, a mistake in the gene drive would then also proliferate.

While she says that these tools could help people tackle a range of problems, Alter also says that the ecological ramifications aren't yet clear. "We can't fully predict the consequences of releasing self-propagating genes into the wild," she says.

Because of this, Alter argues that regulation is needed. She notes that a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report on the nonhuman impact of gene drive technology is expected in the spring, but also points out some issues that can be addressed in the meantime.

Multiple agencies with differing requirements oversee similar projects. For instance, the Food and Drug Administration is evaluating a transgenic mosquito release in Florida proposed by Oxitec, while a moth release program in New York is being overseen by the Department of Agriculture. Which agency oversees what, Alter says, needs clearer guidelines.

She also argues that studies examining the impact of these technologies on the environment need to be funded and that a public conversation about the technology needs to be fostered.