So far, genetically engineered organisms have been mostly limited to agricultural use, with partial success. Around the world, a few major crops (mostly corn, soy, and cotton) are genetically engineered, predominantly for herbicide tolerance and insect resistance. However, the newer techniques of genome editing (also called gene editing) mean that a much wider variety of organisms can now be genetically engineered, including for many purposes outside of food and farming.
This increased power is most dramatically illustrated in the development of gene drive technology. Unlike genetically engineered plants and animals intended for confined use in agricultural production, gene drive organisms are expressly designed for intentional, long-lived release into the wild.
Gene drives are a technology through which a few individual genetically engineered organisms would be deployed to intentionally push new genes through an entire population of a species in the wild or in a farm ecosystem. Through the gene drive mechanism, new genes would be inherited by all offspring in subsequent generations, not just the expected half in normal inheritance. When gene drive organisms reproduce, specific traits as well as the gene drive mechanism itself would be passed on.
Making such spreading genetic changes to an organism, or eliminating it in the wild, could disrupt whole ecosystems in ways that are difficult or impossible to predict or reverse.
The technology is designed to deliberately spread, to alter the genetic makeup of an entire wild population or to eradicate a population or species. For example, gene drives could theoretically be used to stop insect or weed populations from reproducing effectively, or remove invasive species from an ecosystem. Such gene drives would function as extinction-organisms.
Gene drives instead of pesticides
Theoretically, the technology could be used to spread any genetic instructions through a wild population. Currently, gene drives are a mix of hypotheses, concepts, patents, mathematical modelling, and basic research in the lab. Preliminary research is being carried out for pest and disease control.
Further down the line, such research aims to make a species more susceptible to a particular pesticide, for example, or change the behaviour of insects. There is, for example, a patent filed on a hypothetical system to install genes in honeybees that could be switched on and off by an external light beam, tricking bees to pollinate wherever a light directs them.1
The most advanced research so far is in gene drive systems to prevent mosquitoes from reproducing effectively, to reduce the size of particular mosquito populations. The research group “Target Malaria,” largely funded by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, aims to use gene drive mosquitoes to reduce the population of Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes which transmit the parasite that causes malaria.
In 2019, Target Malaria released male-sterile genetically engineered mosquitoes in a village in Burkina Faso, West Africa. These were not yet equipped with a gene drive but the aim was to test the infrastructure for future deployment of gene drive mosquitoes. However, civil society organizations in Africa criticized the test as an unethical experiment where local people were not fully informed and no comprehensive environmental assessment was published.2 Several African environmental organizations had already sent an open letter to Target Malaria, protesting the project as a “top-down external techno-fix” that could result in unintended transboundary spread to countries “not prepared to face these risks.”3
A year earlier, at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, governments did not back a proposal for an international moratorium on gene drives but agreed that strict risk assessment is needed as well as the consent of local communities and Indigenous peoples.4 However the European Parliament recently confirmed their precautionary stance on gene drives in their June 9, 2021 resolution on the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, articulating multiple concerns5 with the technology and stating “no releases of genetically engineered gene drive organisms should be allowed, including for nature conservation purposes, in line with the precautionary principle.”6, 7
Evolved systems are very different from those designed by humans. They’re harder to predict and to design, and exhibit a frustrating tendency to evolve away from engineered behaviors. —“Sculpting Evolution” research group at MIT
Perils of ecosystem engineering
The overarching concern is that making such spreading genetic changes to an organism, or eliminating it in the wild, could disrupt whole ecosystems in ways that are difficult or impossible to predict or reverse. For example, the role of mosquitoes in ecosystems is not well understood and removing them may lead to unanticipated ecological impacts, including the possibility that the malaria parasite could jump host and another disease-carrying species could take their place. Because gene drives are living, evolving organisms, they will also mutate and change over time.
The need to be able to recall gene drives has led to theorizing controls such as “reverse gene drives.” However, such mechanisms only exist as mathematical models, and are accompanied by their own complex risks. Release of gene drives would most likely be irreversible.
The biodiversity implications were discussed in a 2019 report from The International Union for Conservation of Nature that has been recently critiqued for downplaying many of the risks and uncertainties, and for being overly optimistic about potential uses in conservation. The European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility argues that the report fell into a trap of suggesting that gene drives can be controlled; that the risks can predicted and managed.8
Power over evolution
“Sculpting Evolution” is the name of the research group at MIT headed by biologist Kevin Esvelt, who discovered the potential of gene drive technology. Their slogan is “Cultivating wisdom through evolutionary and ecological engineering.”9
The group works to “develop tools capable of precisely intervening in the evolution of ecosystems,” saying: “Evolution gave rise to every living thing and all of human culture, but evolved systems are very different from those designed by humans. They’re harder to predict and to design, and exhibit a frustrating tendency to evolve away from engineered behaviors. At the same time, harnessing and directing evolution can generate useful organisms and biomolecular tools that we could never have rationally designed.”10
Genetic engineering allows us to assert unprecedented direct power over natural systems. First-generation genetic engineering techniques were used to overcome the boundaries of reproduction, to move genes between species that would never mate in nature. Newer techniques promise tools to overcome the rules of inheritance.
Lucy Sharratt is co-ordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), which brings together 16 groups to research, monitor, and raise awareness about issues relating to genetic engineering in food and farming. CBAN is a project on the shared platform of the MakeWay Charitable Society. www.cban.ca
Genetically engineered gene drives: IUCN report on Synthetic Biology lacks balance, European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility, 2021.
Gene Drives. A report on their science, applications, social aspects, ethics and regulations. European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility, 2017.
- Forcing the Farm: How Gene Drive Organisms Could Entrench Industrial Agriculture and Threaten Food Sovereignty, ETC Group, 2018
- Civil Society Denounces the Release of GM mosquitoes in Burkina Faso, ETC Group, 2019
- Stop Risky GM Mosquito Releases: We Have the Right to Say No, African Centre for Biodiversity
- Press Release – United Nations Hits the Breaks on Gene Drives, ETC Group and Friends of the Earth International, November 29, 2018
- “158. [The European Parliament] Is concerned about the new legal, environmental, biosafety and governance challenges that might arise from the release of genetically engineered gene drive organisms into the environment, including for nature conservation purposes; acknowledges the outcome of the Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group of the Convention on Biological Diversity on gene drives and living modified fish(94), which raises concerns about the difficulties of predicting their behaviour, assessing their risks and controlling them after release; notes that gene drive organisms could become invasive species in themselves; considers that global and EU-level risk assessment guidance materials, tools and an environmental monitoring framework, as well as clear global governance and effective mechanisms for controlling and reversing the effects of gene drive organisms, should be fully developed, and that additional research is required on the health, environmental, ecological, ethical and other implications of gene drive organisms to better understand their potential impact; considers therefore that no releases of genetically engineered gene drive organisms should be allowed, including for nature conservation purposes, in line with the precautionary principle.” —European Parliament resolution of 9 June 2021 on the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030: Bringing nature back into our lives (2020/2273(INI)
- European Parliament resolution of 9 June 2021 on the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030: Bringing nature back into our lives (2020/2273(INI), resolution #158 (under the heading “Post-2020 global biodiversity framework, international action, trade and ocean governance”)
- Press Release, “European Parliament calls for ban on gene drive technology,” Save Our Seeds, June 9, 2021
- Gene Drives. A report on their science, applications, social aspects, ethics and regulations. European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility, 2017.
- Sculpting Evolution, MIT Media Lab
- Sculpting Evolution, MIT Media Lab