This week, CSER advisor George Church has co-authored two papers on gene drive technologies, renewing interest in their risks and benefits. First proposed ten years ago, gene drive technology stimulates a gene to be preferentially inherited so that it can spread through the population.
Although gene drives are not yet able to be implemented, they are coming closer to reality. In their technical report, Esvelt, Smidler, Catteruccia and Church report that the technology is being accelerated by CRISPR-Cas9, which allows us to edit genomes. Church reports that Esvelt is already applying the CRISPR-generated gene drive experiments in yeast, nematodes, and mosquitoes. They state that gene drives could be used to assist in the eradication of insect-borne diseases, for example, reducing mosquito populations to prevent them from transmitting malaria.
However, gene drives might also carry substantial risk. In their editorial, Church and nine other scientists report that gene drives may pose substantial risks to wild organisms, crops and lifestock. They argue that although US security policies have broad concerns, they are narrow in the scope of their oversight, focusing on weapons, pathogens and toxins. They argue for defining risk in terms of the ability of biotechnologies to cause harm to humans and other species of interest.
For emerging technologies that affect the global commons, concepts and applications should be published in advance of construction, testing, and release. This lead time enables public discussion of environmental and security concerns, research into areas of uncertainty, and development and testing of safety features. It allows adaptation of regulations and conventions in light of emerging information on benefits, risks, and policy gaps. Most important, in the case of gene drives, lead time will allow for broadly inclusive and well informed public discussion to determine when and how gene driver should be used.