In Search of a Safe Speed for Gene Driving

Scientists at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) have been pioneers in editing genes with the so-called “CRISPR-Cas9” system to “drive” a genetic trait through an entire population of an organism.  Recently, the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) and UCSD released a report with recommendations about how to regulate the testing of this technology so it doesn’t get out of hand. 

Briefly, gene drive techniques would be used to spread a desired trait—such as making mosquitoes unable to transmit malaria—faster and more completely than could be the case with the usual rules of inheritance, and do so in only a few generations, potentially in one or two seasons (depending on the reproductive cycle of the target organism).  The trait to be “driven” could be a change in trait or suppression of the ability to reproduce.  There are older, slower approaches to gene drive than CRISPR, and the changes are in principle reversible, but whether that would in fact succeed would have to be carefully tested, and in the meantime, broader environmental effects could be difficult or impossible to predict.  I commented on some of the concerns in a post on this blog about a year ago.

The JCVI/UCSD report is generally accessible to the general reader, although for the sake of brevity it cites regulations and guidelines without explaining them, so the uninitiated reader (like me) might have to do some digging (which I have not, yet) to grasp the details.  There is a schema depicting the steps for testing genetically modified mosquitoes that I think non-scientific readers will find useful.  However, the report, which focuses on gene drive in insects, addresses policy and regulatory issues, and reads like a 12-page statement of “let’s get our act together.”  In essence, governmental and non-governmental bodies, including the scientists doing the work, have not really collaborated to get their collective arms around what exactly should be the guidelines to be sure that gene drive applications in insects are done with proper safeguards.  The clear model for these reflections is the 1975 Asilomar conference on recombinant DNA, which has been instrumental in guiding the use of genetic engineering techniques in the laboratory and industry over the last 41 years.

The JCVI/UCSD report is an example of how technology leaders should lead in guiding and protecting the public from adverse unforeseen consequences of their work.  Indeed, the report repeatedly emphasized early, extensive, and, indeed, patient conversations with communities.  From a scientific standpoint, not all possible public worries are reasonable or possible, but some are, and all require careful discussion.  Even people with decent educations in the sciences will not readily be conversant with the details involved in specific cases.  And, the conversations can be difficult—witness the recent coverage of the testing of genetically modified (but not true gene-driven) mosquitoes in Florida.

Earlier this summer, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine issued a separate, longer report calling for more research, which may take several years, before releasing genetically modified insects in the field.  But, like the JCVI/UCSD report, the National Academies urged researchers and regulators to work proactively to establish guidelines to deal with societal and regulatory issues.  Such work should continue to be done with full public disclosure.


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