Pioneering safe, localized, and community-guided ecological engineering
Mice Against Ticks
Pioneering community-guided research
We have a moral obligation to ensure that people have the opportunity to have a voice in decisions that will impact their lives. If we develop a new drug or consumer device, people can decline to use them, but if we develop an ecotechnology to change the environment, it will affect everyone. Mice Against Ticks was launched to learn how to work with local communities to develop ecotechnologies that they want and to provide an example for others. Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, where residents are highly educated, make decisions with town hall democracy, but suffer from high rates of tick-borne disease, have formed steering committees to guide our research into heritably immunizing the white-footed mice responsible for infecting most ticks.
To learn more about Mice Against Ticks, check out John Oliver's take, PBS' Nova Wonders special, or Unnatural Selection. Or our publication.
Humane ecological editing to save animals and ecosystems
Current methods of rodent control are ineffective, poorly targeted, and inhumane. Anticoagulant rodenticides cause cerebral hemorrhages that people have described as worse than any cluster headache, affected rodents often take 72 hours to die, and we likely poison over a billion every year. Even without poisons, being a rodent at high population density is no picnic, especially for females. If we could directly reduce the fecundity of rats and mice, we could humanely solve the problem of rodent pests. But if we develop this ecotechnology for urban centers, it'll likely be used for other purposes, including conservation in places such as Aotearoa New Zealand. We've consequently built relationships with both the City of Cambridge Biosecurity Committee and numerous Maori iwis in Aotearoa, whose advice substantially altered our plans.
To learn more about Project Rarity, watch Unnatural Selection.
Daisy-chain and daisyfield gene drive systems appear to be one of the few approaches to localized population editing that may be evolutionarily stable. We're working to develop daisy drive systems that work well even in organisms with low homing rates – those that don't readily copy the gene drive cassette when the original chromosome is cut – by biasing inheritance in other ways.
Advocating for transparency and community guidance of early-stage research
Technologies can fail to benefit the world due to mistrust and accidents. A classic example is nuclear energy, which could otherwise have saved millions of lives and might even have entirely prevented climate change.
Ecotechnologies, those that will alter the shared environment, aren't like pharmaceuticals. If we develop a new drug in secret, without asking for your input and your doctor recommends it, you can always decline. But if we develop an ecotechnology in secret, even if your community votes in favor, you're going to be affected whether you like it or not. If we do anything other than invite your voice early in development, we're knowingly denying you a voice in decisions intended to affect you with no possibility of opting out.
By exploring what we hope are ethical ways of developing ecotechnologies in close collaboration with interested communities, we hope to set an example for the nascent field that will be reflected by incentives changes. For example, if the World Health Organization were to host a registry that requires community sponsorship of projects before experiments begin, funders and journals could simply require registration to receive financial support or publish the results.