Playing God: are we prepared to use gene drive technology?

  • It’s a technology with incredible potential.
  • It’s a technology with tremendous risks.
  • It might put an end to malaria.
  • It might eliminate the need for insecticides and possibly herbicides.
  • It could also have tragic consequences for bats and birds.
  • It could have unpredictable impacts on entire ecosystems.

The technology is called gene drive.

“It is arguably the genetic technology with more social, ethical and policy implications than any other to emerge in the last decade,” Sally Otto, a University of British Columbia zoologist, wrote on the Royal Society of Canada website.

“Gene drive could be used to spread genes that reduce the ability of mosquitoes to transmit … diseases, including malaria, zika and dengue, that kill half a million people (annually) worldwide…. Gene drive could also be used to reduce the spread of invasive species, either sterilizing them or skewing their sex ratios towards males.”

Gene drive, in basic terms, is a tool to spread a genetic alteration into a wild population of a certain species.

In nature there is on average a 50 percent chance of a parent passing a particular trait to an offspring.

However, with a gene drive a specified gene is inherited by all offspring, even if it is present in only one parent.

A U.S. National Academy of Sciences report said that in 2015 researchers used a gene-editing technique called CRISPR/Cas 9 to drive a targeted gene through about 99 percent of a population of fruit flies and mosquitoes.

The research was done in a lab rather than in the field.

The groundbreaking science switched on a light bulb for biologists around the globe. Many scientists are now exploring possible uses for gene drive, including:

  • altering the genetics of mosquito populations so they can’t transmit diseases
  • reducing the population of mosquitoes by making females sterile
  • altering the genetics of insect pests so they can’t transmit diseases to crops

Entomologists are particularly interested in the potential of the technology because insects reproduce frequently, making it possible to drive a desired genetic trait through a large population of insects in a short period of time.

The trait could be something like sterility, which would reduce the overall population of pests.

“Researchers are pursuing applications of gene drives to control a number of economically significant agricultural pests. These include Lepidopteran insects … and spotted wing Drosophila, one of the most significant pests of small fruit and berry producers in the United States,” Zachary Brown, an economist at North Carolina State, wrote in Choices, a magazine of the U.S. Agricultural Economics Association.

The opportunity to control agricultural pests could be limitless, but many scientists are worried about the possibilities made famous by former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: the known unknowns and unknown unknowns of gene drive.

One of the major concerns is that it’s more powerful than established biotechnology.

“It has great potential, which is why people are quite interested in it,” Otto said.

“What’s different about this technology is it’s not just capable of modifying a single organism, but spreading throughout a species…. (It’s) a much broader implication than genetic engineering of a single individual.”

Johanna Elsensohn, a graduate student in entomology at North Carolina State University, said a gene drive to control mosquitoes in South America could potentially alter the mosquito population in North America.

“Potentially, over time, over many, many generations, if you released it in Brazil it could make it to the U.S,” said Elsensohn, co-author of a scientific paper looking at the obstacles and challenges of using gene drive in agriculture.

Controlling the geographic spread of the gene is worrisome, as is the remote possibility of the gene spreading to other species.

For Patrick Tranel, a weed scientist at the University of Illinois, the technical reality of gene drive is forcing policy makers to answer a profound question: is it ethical to extinguish a species, even a pest that spreads disease?

“There are very few organisms in the world that we have enough understanding that we would want to (drive it) to extinction,” he said.

“I don’t want to play God, at that level, to decide that this species has absolutely no value to Earth.”

There’s also the secondary impact of that extinction. What would the loss of an insect species mean to bats and birds that feed on that insect?

How does the loss of that insect, or a reduced population, affect the entire ecosystem?

Gene drive and weeds

Most of the funding and the majority of scientific activity is being dedicated to gene drive and insect pests, but some researchers are looking into gene drive and weeds.

Despite his reservations, Tranel believes gene drive could be used to control troublesome weeds that are resistant to multiple herbicides.

He is studying the dioecious nature of certain weeds, in which there are male flowers and female flowers on separate plants. If weed scientists can understand how that works genetically, it could lead to a gene drive.

“We could (hypothetically) control maleness and make males the dominant trait in these weeds. We could release some males that are modified so that all of their progeny would be males,” he said.

“And after a few generations you would eliminate female (weeds) from the population. Locally you could drive the population to extinction.”

Such a concept is just a concept because scientists don’t know what gene, or likely genes, determines if a weed becomes a male or female.

“In order to do a gene drive, you have to have a gene. You need a target.”

Developing a gene drive to control a weed population might be technically possible, but regulations could thwart the technology before it reached the market.

Government agencies may not accept the idea of using a gene drive to eradicate a weed or an insect that transmits disease to crops.

“Maybe an argument could be made to (make) a mosquito extinct, but I’m not sure we could make an argument saying we want a (certain) weed species extinct,” Tranel said, adding that birds eat weed seeds and that weeds are part of the ecosystem.

Another challenge, especially with a gene drive for a crop pest, is the return on investment.

What farmer is going to pay to release a gene drive moth on his cropland if the benefits go to all the growers in the region?

“Insects can go anywhere. They can fly off your farm as soon as you release them,” Elsensohn said.

“An individual has no incentive to deploy this by themselves…. This is something that would have to be adopted and released on an area-wide basis, but (ag companies) make the most of their money on individual farmer adoption.”

This sort of challenge remains a ways off because most gene drive research for agriculture is at the laboratory stage, Elsensohn said.

Otto said she’s not aware of any researchers in Canada who are using CRISPR to develop a gene drive application.

Is gene drive worth the hassle?

Using CRISPR gene editing to construct a gene drive has been around only since 2015, but the scientific and ethical debate over the technology is becoming louder.

A number of biologists say the only option is a complete ban of gene drive because there are too many unknowns.

Others say the technology should be considered because hundreds of thousands of people die every year from malaria and other mosquito-transmitted diseases.

Gene drive could also be used to control invasive species that cause environmental destruction.

Elsensohn thinks gene drive will first be employed to prevent the spread of disease. Adopting it for agriculture could prove difficult.

“For public health there seems to be an upswell of support. I don’t think the same can be said when you’re using that same technology for agriculture.”

That’s partly because many people remain concerned about genetically modified crops, which have been around for more than 20 years.

Polling in 2016 and 2017 shows that 40 to 50 percent of North Americans think GM food is bad for their health.

With that level of public distrust, developers of gene drive technology for agriculture could face massive public opposition and severe regulatory hurdles.

Tranel said it might take a crisis to get the public on board, something like herbicide resistant weeds destroying millions of acres of cropland in the U.S. Midwest.

“We’re not there yet … but we are in the process of running out of options (to kill weeds),” he said.

“Maybe in five to 10 years from now we’re going to need a brand new technology like a gene drive.”

Money flowing into gene drive research

  • In the fall of 2016 an Indian charitable foundation donated $70 million to the University of California San Diego for gene drive research. Two scientists at UC San Diego were one of the first teams to use CRISPR to construct a gene drive.
  • In July of 2017, the U.S. Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency provided $65 million in funding to seven teams of scientists to study gene drive.

Sources: Wired Magazine and UC San Diego


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  • bufford54

    The best use for this gene drive technology would be to control human over population, which is the real threat to the planet.

    • richard

      How about intelligence drive> Granting women in the developing world nothing more than an education, reduces population explosion overnight……

      • Harold

        An education produces women of thought and their offspring as children of thought and I do not believe that education reduces a population. What reduces a population is fear and there are many preachers of fear. The education or acceptance of Fear has never been an educator; it has been the starting point of an education and no true education points bullets at the children of the future generations. What fear tactics were used to convince the west to have less children? Is it less wealth? Who is taking our money and wealth from us? Children fulfill men and woman and the child’s death undeniably removes that fulfilment and crumbles them. The women of developing country’s are not any different. To accept that the population needs to be reduced gives you yourself no valid reason to be here (born) and no say; you are part of the problem. Someone else could have taken your place; your brother or the neighbours child, or a foreign child; there is no value to your life – is that so? The propaganda if believed places no value onto your own life and that is the thinking of slaves as provided the Masters. What fear tactics are used to accept GMO and pesticide use. What fear tactics are used to promote carbon taxation. Who is telling us that we live on a fearful planet, and are they not the worlds wealthiest saying it? Are the worlds wealthiest living in any sort of world fear in their gated and lap of luxury existence and self-entitlements, or it is just us – their zombies at the gate? Can you identify a solid gate between us and the elite? Our education has led us to that gate and has led us to reinforced that gate with our gold, but has not led us dismantle it and then to walk beyond it; we only possess the #1 education which is given to slaves. The women and men of the “Civilized” countries are suffering alarmingly high rates of mental health disorders, (women – 20% or more) and depression is at a pandemic all time high and volatility appears in our conversations.. Have we truly been “educated”?
        The very fact that woman in these third world areas still lack an education and still lack in food and resources and cheap energy in 2017 is evidence of the inept elite who are leading us; who are they? If money is freedom – why don’t we in Canada have any and suffer in debt instead? Is the greatest amount of debt our greatest freedom? The Liberals and NDP think so.

        • ed

          Birth rates drop dramatically with a nations elevated level of affluence. That is a combination of things really, but study after study for decades have proved it. Our leader globe wide are inept for sure. That will never change unfortunately and often seems to be always getting worse with small glimmers of hope as the global community compete in a race to the bottom. Educated mothers would be our best hope. They are less distructive, but that will not happen either. It will take far more intelligence to get us all out this mess, than got us into it, and it does not exist in a world that has zero tolerence for delayed gratification. Want it all, want it now. This causes alot of grief as the political and corporate promises of all that are broken one by one. A small number profit, far less than 1%, and the rest not so much all the way down to big pain and suffering. Prey!

          • richard

            You are correct….affluence lowers birth rate… Full bellies resist procreation as a life support strategy…. And Oxfam and CUSO have discovered in meso America and Africa that over time education leads to lower birth rates and better community health….. Of course its slow but the prevailing western mythology of feed the planet, is neither logical nor successful…..leading rather to cheap food and affluenza for people who are anything but starved……

          • Harold

            You are correct because it is normal that a woman places child bearing aside as they enter and pursue the work force. Most like to build the “nest” before they have children. Our high costs in Canada have created a condition wherein women have to go to work to create a “nest” and continue to work to support it regardless of the personal wishes that they each may have. The adequate time that the child needs to bond to the mother is birth to 6 or 8 years. Without this bonding they become volatile in their later year’s as teens and young adults and feel that they are self-entitled to all things. Today that bond is broken by daycares and early entry into school settings as early as 4 years old. For a woman to stay at home today for 8 years is almost an impossible task and it does not come without a monitory and other penalties. In my era of youth it was not uncommon to have one “bread earner” and moms at home raising anywhere from 6 to 10 children; very common and they were the middle class.
            It is very important to understand the purpose of the education. Is the purpose solely for the future affordability of children and property or is it to gain a higher knowledge in their own pursuit of self-determination. Many women today are educated and have a job yet they are unhappy and are not there by self-determination but were determined by others and men have become the same. In turn they are not sought after and they are the ones standing in everyone’s line ups. These of course are all general statements and lack in details which I have not included because the research is many pages and do not reflect every teenager or every women. I will further say that no one by majority lacks in intelligence – they only lack in knowledge and they are deliberately not given that knowledge and kept from attaining it; No one knows the cage that they are in until they have found for themselves the door out. praying does not help. I will also say that an educated woman can be equally as destructive as any man can; the gender is meaningless – they are both human. A destructive force does not care about the gender that it resides in. Affluence can be a tricky word when some women believe that richness and wealth and abundance is only measured by the number of children that they have given birth to and have raised. their riches are placed there. Affluence does not always mean the opulence that money can provide. The “1%” are roughly 250,000 of the billions who inhabit the planet. Eliminate money and they (1%) are shattered and they become beggars. Their extreme monetary wealth is the only thing that dignifies them and nothing more.

          • ed

            Right on. You got it. Mostly

    • Harold

      If you can introduce a gene into the world population which can lower the populations IQ then the population would become more manageable for those who wish to take our control away.
      Who will you give your body’s biology over to in trust that they improve upon it to the way that they seem fit and to their own liking?
      The threat to the planet is not the population of people, it is the smaller population of deceivers. With any disease, you only need to get rid of the parasites. Do you truly believe that the parasites are the unborn children? Is so; what does that make you?
      What narrative would you expect from a slave? Does it match yours?

  • ed

    The percentage of people that believe that GMO’s are insafe will only continue to rise if the population becomes more informed. It will go lower if the population is urged to become more ignorant of facts. With the power of the internet it appears, at least so far that informed positions are becoming more fortified. However with tools such as the internet being privy to manipulation and propoganda powers of persuasion, the censoring of this vehicle could quickly corrupt the process. That could slow or even reverse the present education process as we speak, and we could easily sink below the previous pre-internet education levels. Let us hope not, but once money is involved something is always for sale. Who wants to be poor and smart right when you can trade that off.

  • Denise

    Disturbing “The Laws of Nature” is a very dangerous game with a domino effect on the whole ecosystem, but that has never stopped arrogant mankind before. They will eventually wipe out a good portion of the population of people on this planet, if not all, after they have succeeded in killing off all the insects ,birds,aquatic life. They are pretty close at achieving their goal ,so we’re next.

  • Denise

    We need our pests.
    They have their place in the chain of nature, too.
    Everything goes in cycles. Even pest infestations.
    It is mad scientist behavior to permanently alter genes in an entire population.
    We need the beneficial insects which pollinate crops and prey on pests which destroy crops.And what about the birds? Biological solutions are needed, not poisonous chemicals or playing around with genes with uncontrollable consequences,

  • Harold

    To say “playing god” is the most ridicules statement anyone can make. There isn’t a human in existence who can even have the mind of God. This alone shows the inept of science and the mind of science. These maniacs are merely messing around with something that they know nothing of. If these idiots create a disaster how will these same idiots reel it back? The unknown – is the fact that they do not possess the mind of god. Let’s keep these people on the level for which they are truly at – the frail human mind. Are these idiots claiming that god was wrong and that they are here cleaning up his mess; isn’t that what “playing god” means? Extreme caution is what we are overlooking and extreme caution comes with hand cuffs and Industry believes that they are undeserving of it. “Playing god” is a fairy tale right next to Santa Clause. We ought to see them for who they truly are and not the mindlessness of who they believe or think that they are. Their track record throughout history is evidence enough. With extreme caution, history would have been a little cleaner and less sickness and death. God knows that they can’t even get pharmaceuticals drugs right; recall after recall after recall……
    If these idiots knew anything about our human immune system they wouldn’t be concerned about modifying insects, plants, and the like – they would have a cure. These Idiots cannot even master Cancer and they believe that they know something about a mosquito. The sickness in the world is their failure and expresses their level of expertise. Is that god? Whether or not one believes in god the contrast is still remains the same. Should I laugh or feel insulted or both?

  • Robert Mann

    A principal advocate of gene drive, Geo Church’s pupil Kevin Esvelt (now a junior MIT lecturer) visited New Zealand recently, and was interviewed on national radio (with zero probing Q’s). He struck a pose of extreme cautiousness, as if pretending he had invented social responsibility of scientists. He said he’s hoping to pull off a gene drive on an island nr Boston – as if ‘island’ constituted containment. He also said he advocated designing an early drive so that it would self-limit at the outer suburbs of Boston.
    A spoof by the John Cleese gang could hardly do better. The pose is: a process which we understand with very imperfect qualitative details can be quantitatively limited by specific design. Rarely have the gene-jockeys pulled such preposterous bullshit.
    Esvelt’s Kiwi comrade Neil Gemmell has struck a similar ‘ultracautious’ pose on national radio.

    Do not trust these PR agents.

  • richard

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could just eradicate malaria by eliminating mosquitos? Problem is, the mosquitos are just the vector…. the disease exists without them. And as rule one in natural law dictates……Nature abhors a vacuum…..malaria would likely still survive and find a new host to transmit its DNA……Weeds are no different….they thrive because we enable them with monoculture ie. zero till, limited rotation, repetitive applications of same control agents……ergo resistance….. Eliminating weeds would only create another vacuum to be filled by another pest…….That’s the problem with reductionist science, it views nature as a linear equation, an abacus….when in fact its a matrix of interconnectedness……And that is more than most scientists are willing to bare witness to..


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