Gene drive systems are capable of altering the traits of wild populations and associated ecosystems.
Named for the ability to "drive" themselves and nearby genes through populations of organisms over many generations, these genetic elements that spread even if they reduce the fitness of individual organisms. They do this by ensuring that they will be inherited by most - rather than only half - of offspring. Preferential inheritance can more than offset costs to the organism, permitting rapid spread through the population. CRISPR-based genome editing allows us to build gene drive systems capable of spreading different useful changes, including those that will suppress or eliminate the target population.
Global drive systems are likely to spread to every population of the target species in the world.
Local drive systems are confined to local populations.
- A detailed gene drive FAQ
- A comprehensive analysis of safeguards for gene drive research
- All current gene drive research projects and collaborations involving the Sculpting Evolution Group
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 useful alterations through most species or in a way that was evolutionarily stable.
In July 2014, we publicly 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" or "CRISPR gene drives" could let us spread most traits we know how to alter with CRISPR. Given enough generations, nearly all organisms of the target population would have the same changes as those originally generated in the laboratory. Drive systems have now been demonstrated in yeast, flies, and two species of malarial mosquitoes.
Gene drives could benefit human health by altering insect populations that currently spread diseases such as malaria, schistosomiasis, dengue, 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 instead of broadly toxic pesticides and bulldozers. On a metaphorical level, we are finally learning to speak with the living world using nature's own language.
But because gene drives alter the shared environment, they must never be deployed without the support of the people. Even developing a CRISPR gene drive in the laboratory is ethically questionable because an accident could directly impact the lives of others, not to mention seriously damage public trust in scientists. Any scientists interested in working with gene drives should commit to using appropriate safeguards and making all proposals and results openly available from the start of the project. Our own projects and collaborations are detailed here.
- Our original manuscript in eLife is still the most comprehensive description of RNA-guided gene drives. It details ways of building evolutionarily stable drive systems, methods of overwriting changes if something goes wrong, confinement strategies to safely perform experiments, and diverse applications. We chose to defy tradition by publicly describing the technology and its potential before performing experiments in the laboratory in the hope of setting an example for future research in the field.
- Our paper in Science analyzes potential concerns and recommends safeguards and regulatory changes.
- Our paper in Nature Biotechnology (bioRxiv preprint) examines safeguards, efficacy, and reversal in yeast.
- A history of gene drives by Fred Gould.
- An excellent book on gene drives and "selfish" genetic elements by Austin Burt and Robert Trivers.
- A study that used an RNA-guided Cas9 gene drive to make fruit flies with mutations in both copies of a gene.
- A manuscript describing a candidate drive system to spread malaria resistance through populations of a minor mosquito vector.
- An beautiful effort to build population suppression drive systems in the primary mosquito vector of malaria.
Selected Popular Media
- Our guest blog post at Scientific American focuses on capabilities and ethical considerations.
- An article written by Kevin for Project Syndicate on responsible paths forward.
- 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.