Blog‎ > ‎

On gene drives and publication timing

posted Jul 17, 2014, 1:49 AM by Kevin Esvelt   [ updated Oct 25, 2016, 9:32 AM ]
Our recent work builds on research by Austin Burt of Imperial College London on "gene drives", which are inheritance-biasing elements that can spread themselves and adjacent genes through populations even if they reduce the chance that each organism will reproduce.   We've outlined a technically feasible way to use CRISPR/Cas9 to build "RNA-guided gene drives" that may be capable of spreading almost any trait we know how to alter with Cas9 through wild populations over many generations.  

Many people have wondered why we chose to publish before demonstrating that it works in the laboratory.  We think RNA-guided gene drives have the potential to solve many different kinds of ecological problems that can't be addressed any other way.  If we're right about that, this technology could make the world a much better place - but only if we use it wisely.  

The first is a practical concern: we want to guide the responsible development of the technology.  Bluntly, we need to ensure that we develop appropriate safeguards such as reversal and immunization drives alongside the core technology so they will be available and thoroughly tested well before we or anyone else is in a position to consider altering a wild population.  Early publication also ensures that other laboratories who might be thinking of doing the same thing have access to all of the containment methods we've devised, and gives others more time to think of those that we may have missed.

The second concerns our duty to the public.  As scientists, we have a professional responsibility to let people know about the consequences of what we're doing.  In this case, we're discussing - well in advance of development - a technology that could alter the ecosystems that affect many people's lives.  By doing so, we establish a precedent of full transparency in this area of research.  We hope gene drives will be used to restore damaged environments, promote biodiversity and sustainability, and solve major public health problems, but there's always the possibility that driving a particular alteration will have unexpected consequences.  By telling people about these possibilities in advance, we're hoping to initiate broadly inclusive and well-informed discussions to explore how we might collectively and responsibly use this technology for the betterment of humanity and the environment.

Tags: gene drives, safeguards, responsibility