Named for their ability to "drive" themselves and nearby genes through populations over many generations, gene drives can spread even if they reduce the fitness of individual organisms. They accomplish this feat by ensuring that they will be inherited by most - rather than only half - of offspring. This inheritance advantage at the genetic level can offset costs to the organism.
In a landmark paper published in 2003, Austin Burt of Imperial College London first proposed that gene drives based on homing endonucleases might be used to alter or suppress wild populations. But the endonucleases available at the time couldn't be used to drive alterations through most species.
We recently outlined a technically feasible way to use CRISPR/Cas9, a genome editing technology we co-developed, to drive almost any genome alteration through sexually reproducing populations. These "RNA-guided gene drives" could let us spread most traits we know how to alter with Cas9. Given enough generations, nearly all organisms of the target population would have the same changes as those originally generated in the laboratory.
Gene drives could benefit human health by altering insect populations that currently spread diseases such as malaria, dengue, chikungunya, and Lyme so that they can no longer transmit the disease to humans. They could improve the sustainability of agriculture by reducing the need for and toxicity of pesticides and herbicides. Finally, they could aid ecological restoration by removing invasive species and bolstering the defenses of threatened organisms. Collectively, they offer a way to solve biological problems with biology rather than chemical pesticides and bulldozers .
To learn more about gene drives, continue to the detailed FAQ or one of the following resources:
- Our Gene Drive FAQ
- Our manuscript in eLife comprehensively describes RNA-guided gene drives (easily navigated bioRxiv PDF).
- Our paper in Science analyzes potential concerns and recommends safeguards and regulatory changes.
- A history of gene drives by Fred Gould.
- An excellent book on gene drives and "selfish" genetic elements by Austin Burt and Robert Trivers.
- Our work building and testing RNA-guided gene drives, reversibility, and molecular confinement in yeast.
- A study that used an RNA-guided Cas9 gene drive to make fruit flies with mutations in both copies of a gene.
- Our guest blog post at Scientific American focuses on capabilities and ethical considerations.
- The original Wyss Institute press release.
- NOVA has a well-written optimistic take on gene drives.
- For a more conservative view, see the article at the Boston Globe.
- National Geographic focuses on the potential to improve the environment by controlling invasive species.
- The New York Times discusses the potential to control or eradicate malaria.
Video by Lei Jin and Seth Kroll of the Wyss Institute based on a transcript we wrote together.