Imagine being able to introduce a trait into a species that would carry that trait permanently, spreading it through the population from that point on – a trait that would, unlike normal natural selection, always be chosen; for example, introducing into a species of mosquito the inability for it to pass on malaria, the Zika virus or dengue fever to its human host.
The benefits of such a genetic swap are obvious, especially in the developing world where treatment for such diseases is a huge cost and the illness itself debilitating and potentially fatal.
Now, through the advancement of both genetic science and the necessary technology, this process of genetic editing, called a gene drive, has gone from concept to practice in the laboratory. Over the course of the last year, a 15-person panel, including Western’s Wayne Landis, the director of its Institute for Environmental Toxicology and a professor of Environmental Sciences, has been convened by the National Academy of Sciences to dive deeply not only into the science around gene drives, but into the issues of ethics, morality and governance surrounding them. The panel’s final report was released today and is available at http://nas-sites.org/gene-drives/.
“Basically the way it works is that we can now use a tool called a CRISPR/Cas 9 endonuclease to place a new genetic sequence into a very specific location in the genome of an organism, altering it and giving it a new trait. Subsequent reproduction by that organism will spread that trait 100 percent of the time, and it will occur in every generation afterwards,” Landis said. “This isn’t natural selection, it’s not a one-time mutation. It cannot be selected against, and that’s one of the things that both intrigues and scares people working in this field.”
In a recent study, a group of researchers posited that applying this new technique to 1 percent of the world’s wild mosquito population could eradicate malaria within a year.
“Part of you thinks, ‘what’s not to like?’ It’s that important a breakthrough,” Landis said. “Then you start to think of the implications, of the potentialities, and it makes you take a step back and think about it a little more.”
Landis said history is rife with examples of humanity’s failed changes to the natural ecological order, and few breakthroughs have as much chance for extreme success or horrific failure on a global scale as gene drives.
“There are morality issues involved in creating and releasing organisms into the wild that defy natural selection, whether it’s a mosquito or a species of wheat,” he said. “Also, who or what governs this science? Who regulates its use and evaluates its efficacy? As I said in the report, there isn’t a single agency in this country today equipped to handle all of these questions.”
Other members of the NAS panel come from such institutions and organizations as Yale University, the University of California at Berkeley, Notre Dame University, the University of Edinburgh, Vanderbilt Medical Center, and the University of Maryland.
“It has been one of the most intriguing and complex panels I’ve ever worked on, because of all the questions surrounding it, from the genetics side to the social-science side,” Landis said. “It’s really been fascinating.”
For more information on his work with gene drives and the National Academy of Sciences panel, contact Landis at (360) 650-6136 or email@example.com.