Last year in 2016, Department of national intelligence of U.S. added gene editing to a particularly lengthy list of threats posed by weapons of mass destruction & proliferation. In the month of July, a grant of $65 million in four-year contracts was given by U.S. Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency to seven teams of scientists which included Omar Akbari, for studying gene-editing technologies. This grant made Darpa, officially, the world’s largest governmental funder in gene drive research. Most of this money is going toward designing relatively safer systems and developing better tools to counter rogue gene drives that get into the environment by accident, or are sometimes injected with malicious intent.
That danger, however, is more real than scientists thought at first. Four years ago, Harvard biologist Kevin Esvelt suggested the idea of building gene drives for the first time, with the then recently discovered Crispr gene editing system. Esvelt was thinking about extinction. He was trying to specifically prevent endangered wildlife from disappearing by propagating a fertility-reducing gene through the animals which are invasive by nature and compete with endangered species for resources and shelter. Conservational biologists especially liked the idea and decided to go with it. They are considering the gene drives technology to save native birds in New Zealand, Hawaii, and the Farallones. But now, Kevin Esvelt is saying that they should slow down and consider their actions.
This stand by Esvelt is based on the results of the latest mathematical model, that he and his colleagues have published on Thursday, 16 November 2017. By taking into account like how Crispr screwing up and the likelihood of various protective mutations arising, the model shows how gene drives could be mercilessly aggressive. Just a few engineered organisms are required to permanently alter an ecosystem. While Kevin Esvelt doesn’t view the technology as immediately threatening, he is now advocating a bold new caution in how the technology is used.
He says that the primary risk that is posed by gene drive technology is social. An unethical secret research can lead to unwarranted fears, or a fear of unauthorized release of gene drives will definitely damage the public trust in science and governance. He still thinks that gene drives have the potential to save threatened species and take the battle to public health threats. But before achieving this, the researchers will have to invent technically fool-proof and safer forms of such technology.