Strategies for Responsible Gene Editing
A powerful new tool capable of addressing problems as diverse as malaria, Lyme disease, and invasive species should be a cause for celebration. But, because so-called CRISPR genome-editing technology would alter entire populations of wild organisms, its responsible use poses a serious public-policy challenge.
CAMBRIDGE – The discovery of a powerful new tool capable of addressing health and environmental problems as diverse as malaria, Lyme disease, and invasive species should be a cause for celebration. But, because the tool, called CRISPR, can alter entire populations of wild organisms (and thus shared ecosystems), ensuring that these interventions are developed responsibly poses an unprecedented challenge for science and society.
Humans have been altering animals and plants through selective breeding for millennia; but, because these changes typically reduce the capacity for survival and reproduction in the wild, they do not spread to wild populations. Alterations accomplished using CRISPR, which enables scientists to edit a cell’s DNA with unprecedented precision, are different in one crucial respect: The process can result in “gene drive,” a naturally occurring feature of some genes that enables them to spread through a population over generations, even if they do not help survival (and thus reproduction).
Simply put, we can now contemplate altering wild populations in very specific and consequential ways. Those changes can be highly positive. By altering certain features of mosquitos, we could reduce or even eradicate ancient scourges such as malaria and dengue that afflict hundreds of millions of people each year. (Malaria alone kills a child every 90 seconds, on average.) By permanently immunizing the relevant animal populations, we could prevent new cases of Lyme and other diseases that originate in wild organisms, or we could block newly emergent pathogens such as the Zika virus, which has been linked to an epidemic of stunted brain development in newborns in Latin America.