The emerging science of gene drives has the potential to address environmental and public health challenges, but gene-drive modified organisms are not ready to be released into the environment and require more research in laboratories and highly controlled field trials, says a new reportfrom the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
To navigate the uncertainty posed by this fast-moving field of study and make informed decisions about the development and potential application of gene-drive modified organisms, the committee that conducted the study and wrote the report recommended a collaborative, multidisciplinary, and cautionary approach to research on and governance of gene drive technologies.
Gene drives are systems of biased inheritance that enhance a genetic element’s ability to pass from parent organism to offspring. With the advent of new, more efficient, and targeted gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR/Cas9, gene modifications can, in principle, be spread throughout a population of living organisms intentionally and quickly via a gene drive, circumventing traditional rules of inheritance and greatly increasing the odds that an altered gene spreads throughout a population. Preliminary evidence suggests that gene drives developed in the laboratory could spread a targeted gene through nearly 100 percent of a population of yeast, fruit flies, or mosquitoes.
Gene drives have the potential to address public health threats, conservation-related issues, agricultural pests, and other challenges. For example, gene drives might be developed to modify organisms that carry infectious diseases such as dengue, malaria, and Zika. In agriculture, a gene drive might be used to control or alter organisms that damage crops or carry crop disease. On the other hand, some gene-drive modified organisms might lead to unintended consequences, such as the unintentional disruption of a non-target species or the establishment of a second, more resilient invasive species.