Gene drives: to a land of milk and honey or the apocalypse?

February 19, 2017 by Lawrence Woodward

Gene drives have the potential to spread genetically engineered genes through wild species causing massive ecological disruption and even “re-engineering” entire populations.

Currently they are largely unregulated with no international framework governing their use or agreed procedures for risk assessment and monitoring.

According to the leading science journal, Nature: “Since the introduction of new tools such as the popular gene-editing technique called CRISPR–Cas9 it has been possible to spread or “drive” a given gene through a population almost exponentially”

Unknown risks and not understood

This has caused widespread concern and not just amongst environmental groups; some governments and many researchers – including those who see potential benefits in the technology – have urged caution and called for a robust and unified system of monitoring and governance.

Some researchers have argued that the concerns are being overstated and that natural and technical constraints will limit the application of gene drives – not least the evolution of natural resistance.

Nonetheless, in 2016 a specially convened committee of the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine warned that ‘gene drives pose complex ecological risks that are not yet fully understood”, that the technology “is not ready – and we are not ready – for any kind of release,”

The committee’s chair, Elizabeth Heitman wrote that “molecular biology research on gene drives has surged forward, it has outpaced our understanding of their ecological consequences, Even a small, accidental release from a laboratory holds the potential to spread around the globe: After release into the environment, a gene drive knows no political boundaries”.

Industry led cop out

Many people hoped that the recent (December 2016) Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) meeting in Cancun, Mexico would make significant progress towards agreed regulation and oversight. They were badly let down.

In advance of the meeting more than 170 civil society organisations called on governments to place a moratorium on the development and release of gene drives because of their potential for unpredictable, and possibly uncontrollable, impacts on biodiversity, wildlife and ecosystems.

This proposal was supported by some countries, but following lobbying led by Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Brazil – countries with close ties to the biotech industry – it was rejected in favour of a cop out agreement which urged caution whilst supporting, in an undefined way, better risk-assessment.

A failure of duty 

Civil society organisations and environmentalists took some comfort from the fact that the Convention explicitly covered gene drives and, according to Silvia Ribeiro from ETC Group, they welcomed “the decision is an alert to all governments that they need to pay close attention to this new high-risk technology”.

However, there is no doubt that this outcome is a major setback. Overall the ETC characterised the meeting as “four steps forward, one leap back on global governance of synthetic biology” – of which gene drives are a part.

The “leap back” was a decision to block the development of new risk assessment guidance for synthetic biology, gene drives or genetically modified fish and to close down the expert group which was expected to deliver robust risk assessment guidelines.

Dr. Ricarda Steinbrecher, representing the Federation of German Scientists declared that this amounted to a failure of duty by the parties to the Convention.

“Given the rapid advances in technological developments, it is crucial to understand the risks that each of these holds for the environment or human health,”

Kevin Esvelt, an evolutionary engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, called the meeting “a victory for the status quo”. But this sanguine view is highly misleading. There is no “status quo” where these new technological approaches are concerned.

The absolute need for precaution

The speed with which new developments are announced is outpaced only by the PR rush and the extravagance of the claims made for them.

Precautionary voices – even those from within the research establishment – are swamped by the momentum whilst regulatory oversight is worse than pedestrian; it is stationary and fading from view. There is justifiable doubt that gene drives can ever be properly regulated and therefore there is a strong scientific argument not just for a moratorium but for a perpetual ban.

Most citizens are overwhelmed by technological developments like this; in all likelihood many of us will be bemused, befuddled and “can’t be bothered” to grapple with the complexities. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have concerns or that those concerns should be dismissed.

The application of science and technology in society is not just a matter for scientists, technologists, patent holders and business.

Gene drives present a situation for which the precautionary principle was created and it should be implemented rigorously. But it will take loud, robust and persistent voices, from citizens and scientists alike, to ensure that it is.