By Aryaman Bhatia, Science and Tech Editor, The Pawprint
Liz O’Neill, an environmental activist, is unapologetic about gene drives, the next generation of genetic modification (GM) technology. “It’s really concerning,” says the director of the UK anti-GM lobbying organization GM Freeze.
“It is exceptionally arrogance to unleash something that has been purposely made in a laboratory in order to outfight nature and propagate without exception inside natural populations.”
“And you can’t put the genie back in the bottle once it’s out.”
Gene drives operate in a way that seems like something out of a science fiction novel, yet they are already being employed in laboratory studies. It’s difficult, but here’s a simplified explanation.
Gene drive technology goes one step farther than regular GM in that it adds a new, lab-tweaked gene into an organism. It adds a gene drive, which is a lab-created gene that can also duplicate itself and target and eliminates a certain natural gene.
This is how it works: if an animal (parent A) with gene drives mates with one that doesn’t bring another animal (parent B), parent A’s gene drive instantly goes to work in the growing embryo that it begins to merge their genetic material.
Crispr is a programable DNA sequence, that is added to a gene to generate a gene drive. This instructs the DNA to go and seek the natural version of itself in the other parent’s DNA in the new embryo. The gene drive also includes an enzyme that does the cutting.
So, what’s the point of such sophisticated technology? It is envisaged that gene drives will be utilized to drastically lower the population of malarial mosquitos and other pests or invading species.
This approach is more successful than normal DNA since the introduced gene characteristic spreads quicker and further because every single offspring has it.
Target Malaria is one organization at the forefront of this, having produced gene drives that prevent mosquitos from generating female progeny. This is significant for two reasons: only female mosquitos bite, and without females, mosquito populations will drop.
The primary goal is to drastically reduce the number of malaria deaths, which were estimated to reach 627,000 in 2020 by the World Health Organization.
It may also reduce the disease’s economic effect. Malaria is predicted to cost the African continent $12 billion (£9.7 billion) in lost economic production per year, with 241 million cases in 2020, predominantly in Africa.
It may also reduce the disease’s economic effect. There are 241 million instances. However, advocates like as Liz O’Neill argue that the risks of unintended consequences, such as the gene drive causing detrimental and unexpected mutations and knock-on effects, are too great.
“Gene drives are like GM on steroids,” she explains. “Any issue regarding the use of any genetic alteration becomes tenfold more concerning when discussing gene drives because of how far and wide they are meant to propagate.”