Gene Drive - a genetic chain reaction that can alter and eradicate species in nature

"The bottom line is that making a standard, self-propagating CRISPR-based gene drive system is likely equivalent to creating a new, highly invasive species: both will likely spread to any ecosystem in which they are viable, possibly causing ecological change." [1]

This is how the US-American researcher Kevin Esvelt from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston describes a discovery in which he himself was significantly involved. With the help of the so-called "genetic scissors" CRISPR-Cas, organisms can be produced that can pass on certain genetic characteristics to all their offspring 100 percent. They are not only implanted with a genetically modified DNA sequence, as in the past, but also the blueprint for a CRISPR system that independently repeats this genetic manipulation in all subsequent generations. When such a gene drive organism is released into the environment, it triggers a genetic chain reaction that can change the genome of an entire species globally. Since this also allows characteristics to be spread that prevent further reproduction, Gene Drives can be used to eradicate plant and animal species.

In the laboratory, Gene Drives have already been successfully tested in various organisms (yeast bacteria, worms, insects, mice). It has also been shown that there may be unintended effects, such as CRISPR-Cas scissors altering genome locations other than those intended.No gene drive organisms have been released into the environment; at least, no such release has been reported so far. Gene-Drive releases could change the world: they involve unprecedented hazards and risks and present us with completely new ethical challenges as well. Gene-Drive releases could change the world: they involve unprecedented hazards and risks and present us with completely new ethical challenges. For their totalitarian effect overrides basic rules of natural evolution. It can (depending on the speed at which a species reproduces), within a very short time, affect both the species concerned as well as all ecosystems in which the species plays an important role.

"Sculpting Evolution" is the name of Esvelt's research group at MIT. They want to use the technology to solve health and environmental problems "by biological means". Whereas the safety concept of previous genetic engineering was essentially based upon preventing the outcrossing of the genetically engineered traits of cultivated plants and farm animals into nature, the spread of the GMO is now the declared goal at Gene Drives.

Two areas of application are often mentioned by the operators of the technology: Control of invasive species to protect original ecosystems (mice on Galapagos) and control of organisms that play a role in the transmission of diseases (e.g. Anopheles mosquitoes / malaria). A look at the patents registered to date for Gene Drives reveals, however, a multitude of applications in agriculture. Of additional concern is the possible use of Gene Drives as bio-weapons. In addition to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is particularly committed to the promotion of the technology by international bodies and the public, the US Army's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA, is one of the most important financiers of Gene Drive research.


[1] Source: Esvelt, Kevin M.; Gemmell, Neil J. [2017]: Conservation demands safe gene drive. In: PLOS Biology; online at: doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2003850

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