Scientists can now edit the genes of myriad organism to help them survive. How to do that responsibly?
Genetically modified mosquitoes to stop malaria in countries such as Burkina Faso, genes resistant to Lyme disease in the US, corals that can survive environmental change in the Caribbean – these scientifically enhanced features of nature may soon become realities. They are all highly promising but also very risky.
The authors of a new paper in the journal Science explore the challenges entailed in large-scale gene editing and suggest a safe way to proceed with the technology responsibly.
Gene editing basically means changing DNA through adding to, subtracting from, or modifying its sequence for a particular purpose. Genes define an organism’s interactions with the environment at a very basic level, thus the technology opens almost limitless opportunities. We could soon create resistance to diseases and environmental stress and modify the genes of endangered species to help save them from extinction. It might soon be even possible to revive species that died out thousands of years ago.
Yet as many of these applications of gene editing on animals and other complex organisms are becoming reality, little discussion is taking place on the potential effects of those solutions. Nor is everyone happy about the divine-like potentials of this new technology.
In their paper, an interdisciplinary group of researchers in ecology, genetics, philosophy, policy and a dozen other disciplines argues for a new global body to ensure well-informed and inclusive evaluations of both the benefits and risks of gene editing. This suggestion is not just another cry in the desert for environmental responsibility, but a serious ethical and political statement. “The biggest risk right now with this technology is the uncertainty associated with it,” notes Natalie Kofler, a researcher at Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.
While gene editing is often presented as a possible silver bullet, rarely mentioned are the implications of the technology for the re-composition of species. For example, what if modified coral reefs help drive natural corals and fish depended on them to extinction? Or what if specific modifications start to override not only targeted invasive species but also native ones?
Of particular concern is the gene drive technology, which is designed to spread certain qualities. Thus, changes like infertility can be passed through entire species and lead them to extinction, possibly impacting many other species through disturbed food chains. Little is known about possible side-effects, such as unwanted mutations and new evolutionary resistance. And considering the complex interconnections in nature, this may put much of life as such at a serious risk. The tricky part here is that the same technologies may be urgently and hugely beneficial to public health, helping for example to overcome diseases like malaria or Zika virus.
“Confronting this challenge goes beyond just the inclusion of empirical, scientific data, to also bring in value systems, ethics, and relationships with nature, relationships with technology, and historically marginalized voices to make a fully informed decision,” says Kofler. Every single risk should be taken into account and every threat should be made transparent, according to James Collins, a Professor of Natural History and the Environment at Arizona State University.
The coordinating global body, the researchers say, should integrate diverse fields of expertise and perspectives, acting as a third party between communities, developers, governmental organizations, and NGOs to ensure inclusive deliberation and decision-making on a case-by-case basis.
The researchers suggest that for effective governance of gene editing, each and every case should be required to have clear answers on the real scope and true intent of the intervention, on all the potential impacts on ecosystems and human health, and on how we will deal with the challenges each alteration poses from diverse ethical perspectives.
They argue that only upon the effective arrangement of such a body should decisions be made about widespread applications of genetic engineering (and particularly gene drive technology) on complex organisms like mosquitos or corals. And while the proposal is just a blueprint for action, it suggests a possible starting point to address the challenges responsibly.