Meddling with Nature: Is it Right? Is it Fair?

Many envisioned environmental applications of newly developed gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR might provide profound benefits for ecosystems and society. But depending on the type and scale of the edit, gene-edited organisms intentionally released into the environment could also deliver off-target mutations, evolutionary resistance, ecological disturbance, and extinctions. Hence, there are ongoing conversations about the responsible application of CRISPR, especially relative to the limitations of current global governance structures to safeguard its use,   Largely missing from these conversations is attention to local communities in decision-making. Most policy discussions are instead occurring at the national or international level even though local communities will be the first to feel the context-dependent impacts of any release. ..

CRISPR gene editing and other related genetic technologies are groundbreaking in their ability to precisely and inexpensively alter the genome of any species. CRISPR-based gene drives hold particular import because they are designed to rapidly spread genetic changes—including detrimental traits such as infertility—through populations of sexually reproducing organisms, to potentially reach every member of a species. Villages in Burkina Faso are weighing the release of gene drive–bearing mosquitoes that could suppress malaria. Nantucket Island residents in the United States are considering the release of genetically engineered white-footed mice to deplete Lyme disease reservoirs. New Zealand communities are discussing the possibility of using genetic methods to eliminate exotic predators.

But what if a gene drive designed to suppress an invasive species escaped its release site and spread to a native population? Or if a coral species gene edited to better adapt to environmental stressors dominated reef ecosystems at the expense of a diversity of naturally evolving coral species and the fish that depend on them ? The gravity of these potential outcomes begs the question: Should humans even be meddling with the DNA of wild organisms? The absence of generally agreed on answers can be used to support calls for moratoria on developing and releasing genetically altered organisms, especially those with gene drives (6).

However, the promising benefits of environmental gene editing cannot be dismissed. Gene drives may provide a long-sought-after tool to control vectors of infectious disease and save millions of human lives. Projects to conserve ecosystems or promote species resilience are often intended to repair human-inflicted environmental damage. Put simply, either using this technology irresponsibly or not using it at all could prove damaging to humans, our welfare, and our planet.

At the international level, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has enlisted an expert technical panel to, in part, update its Cartagena Protocol (of which the United States is not a party) that oversees transboundary transport of living modified organisms to accommodate gene drive–bearing organisms. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is also developing policy to address the release of gene-edited organisms. Although the CBD and the IUCN offer fora to engage diverse public feedback, a role largely fulfilled by civil society groups, none of these agencies currently use the broad and open deliberative process we advocate….

Different societal views about the human relationship to nature will therefore shape decision-making. Local community knowledge and perspectives must therefore be engaged to address these context-dependent, value-based considerations.  A special emphasis on local communities is also a matter of justice because the first and most closely affected individuals deserve a strong voice in the decision-making process…Compounding this challenge is that these decisions cannot be made in isolation. Organisms released into local environments may cross regional and even international borders. Hence, respect for and consideration of local knowledge and value systems are necessary, but insufficient, to anticipate the potentially ramifying global implications of environmental release of gene-edited organisms. What is needed is an approach that places great weight on local perspectives within a larger global vision…

The needs of ecosystems could also be given voice to inform deliberative outcomes through custodial human proxies. Inspired by legislative precedent set by New Zealand, in which the Whanganui River was granted legal “personhood,” human representatives, nominated by both an international body like the IUCN and the local community, would be responsible for upholding the health and interests of the ecosystems in question. Proposed gene-editing strategies would be placed in the larger context of alternative approaches to address the public health or environmental issue in question…d

An online registry for all projects intending to release genetically engineered organisms into the environment must be created. Currently, no central database exists for environmental gene-editing applications or for decision-making outcomes associated with their deployment, and this potentially puts the global community at risk…A global coordination task force would be charged with coordinating multiple communities, nations, and regions to ensure successful deliberative outcomes. As a hypothetical example, genetic strategies to eliminate invasive possums from New Zealand must include representatives from Australia, the country likely to be affected should animals be transported outside the intended range. Similarly, the African Union is currently deliberating appropriate governance of gene drive–bearing mosquitoes to combat malaria on a regional scale. 

Excerpts from Natalie Kofl et al.,  Editing nature: Local roots of global governance, Science Magazine, Nov. 2, 2018

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