Gene drives aren’t ready for the wild, report concludes

illustration of gene drive inheritance

Mosquitoes and other organisms normally have a 50 percent chance of passing along a gene to an offspring (left). A gene drive copies and pastes itself into chromosomes from both parents, ensuring it gets passed on more often (right).

M. Telfer

Mosquitoes and invasive species can rest easy — for now. Genetic technology called gene drives could wipe out pest species, but it’s not ready for release in the wild, concludes a report released June 8 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

Gene drives are self-perpetuating pieces of DNA that break the laws of genetics to get inherited by more offspring than usual. These promiscuous genes can quickly spread through a population.

Scientists have recently engineered gene drives to sterilize malaria-carrying mosquitoes or to prevent mosquitoes from passing the malaria parasite to humans. Some people have proposed that gene drives might be deployed in the fight against Zika virus. Others worry that gene drives could have devastating environmental consequences, and might even do indirect harm to people.

Rapid improvements in the technology are “both encouraging and concerning,” the report’s authors say. “Proof-of-concept in a few laboratory studies is not sufficient … to support a decision to release gene-drive modified organisms into the environment.”

Before unleashing gene drives scientists need to refine the technology, the 16-member committee that authored the report suggests. Researchers should also learn much more about the biology of gene drives and their target organisms, how the drives might work in the wild, and the effects they could have on ecosystems. Regulatory systems may also need to be revised to properly control the technology, the report’s authors write.

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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