The mosquitoes are being fitted with a piece of dna called a gene drive. Unlike the genes introduced into run-of-the-mill genetically modified organisms, gene drives do not just sit still once inserted into a chromosome. They actively spread themselves, thereby reaching more and more of the population with each generation. If their effect is damaging, they could in principle wipe out whole species.. If gene drives were to condemn to a similar fate the mosquitoes that spread malaria, a second of humankind’s great scourges might be consigned to history.
Gene drives can in principle be used against any creatures which reproduce sexually with short generations and aren’t too rooted to a single spot. The insects that spread leishmaniasis, Chagas disease, dengue fever, chikungunya, trypanosomiasis and Zika could all be potential targets. So could creatures which harm only humankind’s dominion, not people themselves. Biologists at the University of California, San Diego, have developed a gene-drive system for Drosophila suzukii, an Asian fruitfly which, as an invasive species, damages berry and fruit crops in America and Europe. Island Conservation, an international environmental ngo, thinks gene drives could offer a humane and effective way of reversing the damage done by invasive species such as rats and stoats to native ecosystems in New Zealand and Hawaii.
Such critics fear that the laudable aim of vastly reducing deaths from malaria—which the World Health Organisation puts at 445,000 a year, most of them children—will open the door to the use of gene drives for far less clear-cut benefits in ways that will entrench some interests, such as those of industrial farmers, at the expense of others. They also point to possible military applications: gene drives could in principle make creatures that used not to spread disease more dangerous… The ability to remove species by fiat—in effect, to get them to remove themselves—is, like the prospect of making new species from scratch, a power that goes beyond the past ambit of humankind.
Gene drives based on crispr-Cas9 could easily be engineered to target specific bits of the chromosome and insert themselves seamlessly into the gap, thus ensuring that every gamete gets a copy . By 2016, gene drives had been created in yeast, fruitflies and two species of mosquito. In work published in the journal Nature Biotechnology in September, Andrea Crisanti, Mr Burt and colleagues at Imperial showed that one of their gene drives could drive a small, caged population of the mosquito Anopheles gambiae to extinction—the first time a gene drive had shown itself capable of doing this. The next step is to try this in a larger caged population.
There are also worries about how gene drives might be used to create a weapon. …The need to find ways to guard against such attacks is one of the reasons that the Pentagon’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (darpa) gives for its work on gene drives. Renee Wegrzyn, programme manager for darpa’s “Safe Genes” project, says the work is to prevent “technological surprise”, whether in the form of an unintended consequence or nefarious use. One of the academic teams she funds has made progress in developing anti-crispr enzyme systems that one day might be able to inhibit a drive’s operation.
Oversight needs not just to bring together a range of government agencies; it requires co-operation between governments, too. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which entered into force under the un Convention on Biological Diversity (cbd) in 2003, provides controls on the transfer of genetically modified organisms. But how it applies to gene drives is unclear—and besides, America has never ratified the convention. An attempt to ban gene-drive research through the cbd, which was backed by the etc Group and other ngos, failed at the convention’s biennial meeting in Cancún in 2016…Like the reintroduction of vanished species advocated by the rewilding movement, gene-drive technology will provide new arenas for the fight between those who wish to defend nature and those who wish to tame it.
Excerpts from Gene Drives: Extinction on Demand, Economist, Nov. 10, 2018, at 24