Where are we Headed with the Gene Drives?

In 1866, when Gregor Johann Mendel published his work on invisible factors that we now call as genes, he had successfully translated the language of nature through his laws of inheritance. The expression of certain dominant characteristics and the repression of certain recessive traits was nature’s way of determining the path of evolution. You could observe this path, draw inferences but the path remained resolute when it came to what gets passed on to coming generations, what gets suppressed and what reappeared in sporadic intervals.

This path, which was once a fundamental aspect of nature beyond human intervention, is now open for reconstruction. The tool for this construction became available in 2012 when CRISPR/Cas9 technology was developed which essentially gave the world the word processor needed to cut, copy, paste genetic sequences with utmost precision at specific sites.

This advancement in genetic editing opened new realms for scientists looking at the possibilities of curing genetic diseases. On a darker side, this also enabled those aiming at mastering the godly act of genesis itself by engineering organisms with desired traits. This fear became true in November last year, when He Jiankui, a Chinese scientist, revealed that he had successfully altered the DNA of twin girls to prevent them from contracting HIV. Naturally, it sparked widespread protests from the scientific community all around the world and He faces criminal charges in China. While He Jiankui altered the characteristics in individual embryos to prevent them from inheriting HIV from their parents, the CRISPR technology has now gained new applications, ones which can be used to alter or even exterminate entire species.

Gene Drives

Gene Drives are used to cause changes in the genomic sequences of an organism in a way that they always get expressed in every subsequent generation to come. First proposed by Austin Burt at the Imperial College London, this technology is now in limelight for its potential use in the eradication of malaria-causing vector, the female Anopheles mosquito.

This project has received tremendous funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which now, is not only investing in the project funding but also in PR programmes aimed at countering the opposition posed by organizations like Friends of the Earth. The support of Gates’ foundation has also strengthened with the kind of positive results the technology has shown in recent times. Recently, a team at the Imperial College London successfully exterminated an entire batch of mosquitoes by introducing gene drive in a number of individual mosquitoes. 

The approach adopted in this experiment was to induce biased sex ratios in the mosquito batch, leaving more males than females and even causing infertility in the female counterparts, thereby putting the prospects of further progeny to a halt. Given the success rates achieved in recent times, there are different datelines posed by different people involved. In a Forbes interview of 2016, Gates gave a timeline of a few years which further stoked fears in the minds of organizations that opposed such a measure. However, he did later amend it to several years.

Challenges Ahead

Looking at the range of things that could go wrong in a bio-genetic experiment conducted on live organisms, the UN diplomats have proposed a test ban in a draft resolution updating the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. In response, many scientists funded by the Gates Foundation promulgated letters expressing worries over such measures being adopted by the UN.

Amidst this debate, there also lie reasonable justifications for banning such tests. One such prominent concern is that such changes conducted on live and mating species cannot be restricted to a limited geographical area. It can spread, and if it does, even in the name of a beneficial result, it infringes upon the sovereignty of nations. For example, a genetic eradication programme may receive consensus from a few African Nations but what if a few others do not want it. How would the scientists restrict the free movement of small organisms like mosquitoes? 

On the other hand, scientists are trying to allay the worries by stating that such experiments can always be reversed by inducing reverse drives. Also, they claim that such changes would not cause greater changes in the ecological systems since most of the prominent species have larger life spans and lower mating rates than insect species thereby significantly increasing the time-frame for mitigating any crisis from erupting. 

Amidst this debate, lies the future of all life on earth. Given the new breakthroughs being achieved in realms of genetic engineering, humans have now gained the power to significantly alter the life patterns thriving on the planet. This, on one hand, opens new avenues for humans to achieve unprecedented success but at the same comes at the cost of engineering changes that may end up becoming the reason for our own undoing.

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