The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (N.A.S.) on Wednesday supported research on gene drives, a technology that allows humans to modify genetically or eliminate whole species in the wild, including mosquitoes. But this power comes with potentially dangerous consequences mentioned in a report by an advisory panel of ethicists, biologists and others for the academy.

The Aedes aegypti mosquito, responsible for transmitting the Zika virus and other pathogens, could be eradicated through gene drives, some biologists claim. Scientists could spread a gene that determines the gender of the mosquitoes, meaning that the number of females could be significantly reduced until the species are no longer able to reproduce.

As seen above, a computerized rendering shows the Cas9 gene-editing enzyme
As seen above, a computerized rendering shows the Cas9 gene-editing enzyme. Image Credit: The Diane Rehm Show

The six case studies the advisory panel considered to make its report includes using the technology to control mice hurting biodiversity on islands and mosquitoes transmitting malaria to native Hawaiian birds, as well as a Palmer amaranth that has developed resistance to herbicides.

This technology, which has only been tested in laboratories and other controlled environments, ensures that all of an individual’s offspring receives the genetic code capable of eliminating the entire species. Scientists would have to take advantage of the latest gene editing tools to link DNA pieces to the gene driver and ultimately spread certain traits through a whole wild population.

Although gene editing is promising, the risks are high

However, there are serious risks. The report, partly financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, advises the federal government that there is not enough data to prove that gene drives justify the release of a modified living organism into the wild.

The committee for the N.A.S. added that it would be difficult to obtain any consent from people whose environments might be threatened by such a release. The panel’s report pointed out that communities do not know how to participate in this kind of scientific projects.

The risks are mostly related to the fact the modified organism could eventually turn against humans and their environment.
The risks are mostly related to the fact the modified organism could eventually turn against humans and their environment. Image Credit: Tampa Bay

“After release into the environment, a gene drive knows no political boundaries,” the panel noted, as quoted by The New York Times.

The committee also mentioned that the regulatory systems for genetically modified organisms in the United States and globally are not ready to approve gene drives. The report warned officials not to consider the gene drive technique out of fear that a particular health crisis might worsen, especially when it is yet to overcome the “phased testing” system.

If the method happens to get out of control, a gene drive could potentially jump to another species never intended to be part of the experiment or the annihilation of one damaging organism might trigger an even worse living thing to emerge. The report mentions how difficult it can be to control the dynamic changes in populations and evolutionary processes that could take place and lead to a significant number of consequences.

The debate might last for a long time

Nevertheless, the committee admitted that the gene drive technology should continue to be developed due to is fascinating potential benefits. Elizabeth Heitman, a medical ethicist at Vanderbilt University who was involved in the committee, acknowledged that gene drive showed great promise as long as it is studied cautiously, The New York Times reported.

For their part, environmental watchdog groups argue that the committee should have recommended the research on gene drives to be stopped, given the severe risks it addressed in its report.

“We believe that at this point it would be prudent to halt gene drive development until such safety concerns are formally addressed and clarified,” said Jim Thomas, program director of the ETC Group in Montreal, as quoted by The New York Times.

Thomas added highlighted the fact that the research should be ended because the report by the advisory panel for the N.A.S. does not quite explain how to prevent the technology to be misused for military and commercial purposes. He even said the United Nations should be tasked with controlling the research if it is to be continued.

Source: The New York Times