Three years ago, biological engineer Kevin Esvelt proposed a new way to genetically modify entire populations of organisms in the wild. Esvelt and his colleagues at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering suggested that some major ecological problems could be solved with self-propagating genetic devices called gene drives, which carry human-designed genetic modifications into wild populations. Gene drives, which have the potential to suppress the growth of wild populations, could be used against a variety of harmful species, ranging from malaria-bearing mosquitos and agricultural pests to invasive species that threaten endangered native animals and plants in many areas around the world. Click on the following three links to access the full story.
Esvelt has since changed his mind. As serious efforts to develop gene drives get underway, Esvelt, now a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, is warning that if we use this technology to solve ecological problems, the cure may end up being worse than the disease.
That both sides of the gene drive debate may have valid arguments shows just how little is still known about this technology, or what might happen if it is ever released into the natural world. One side, however, clearly has more resources. A handful of backers—including the US military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—have poured several hundred million dollars into gene drive research over the last two years.