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Warning of Ecological Risks of Gene Drives

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Scientists have issued a call to ensure that the use of gene drives in conservation will only affect local populations.

Gene drives promote the inheritance of a particular genetic variant to increase its frequency in a population. In conservation, a gene drive could spread infertility and ultimately eliminate a pest population. New Zealand, for instance, is considering gene drives to help eliminate rats, mice, stoats and possums.

Prof Neil Gemmell of the University of Otago believes there is still “huge merit” in using genetic technologies for conservation work, but says that standard self-propagating versions “may be uncontrollable” and therefore unsuited to conservation.

In an article published in PLOS Biology, Gemmell and A/Prof Kevin Esvelt of MIT examined the possible consequences of the accidental spread of existing self-propagating gene drive systems. Esvelt is credited with first describing how gene drives could be created using CRISPR bacterial DNA to edit specific genes in a target organism, and had suggested that self-propagating gene drive systems might be suitable for conservation. However, Gemmell and Esvelt now say this suggestion “was a mistake” as it is “equivalent to creating a new, highly invasive species – both will likely spread to any ecosystem in which they are viable, possibly causing ecological change”.

Therefore they...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.