Gene drive for conservation. What’s natural?

Gene drive researchers are noticing how their work intersects with societal assumptions about nature and ‘natural-ness.’

Gene drive is an umbrella term for a suite of gene editing techniques and processes enabled by the CRISPR-Cas9 revolution. Scientists have long known that sometimes, ‘selfish’ genes can override the typical Mendelian laws of genetic inheritance. Until CRISPR-Cas9, the development and construction of a synthetic gene drive was merely a dream: now it is very much a reality.

The ability to create a synthetic gene drive has massive connotations for how humans relate to their surroundings. This is typical of all emerging technologies. Artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, synthetic biology and suchlike, have extraordinary potential – but whether those potentialities are desirable is virtually always a matter of contention.

Currently, the most advanced field of gene drive research and development is in public health: pioneering researchers are creating gene drive-modified anopheles gambiae mosquitoes with the intention to constrain or even totally eradicate this devastating malaria disease vector. In principle, a relatively small number of gene drive-modified mosquitoes could be released into the wild, and the selfish genes they carry would pass a specific trait – male sterility, for example – through the population of wild anopheles gambiae mosquitoes. This could result in the eradication of that species of mosquito, thereby reducing the burden of a disease that many in the developed world have forgotten about.

Photo by Egor Kamelev on

Good riddance, eh? Not quite… We now have the ability to choose to eradicate a species. Humanity has caused, and continues to cause, species extinctions on a grand scale. But those extinctions have been, by and large, inadvertent. Gene drive puts the conversation on a whole new level.

Conservationists are rightfully wary of new technologies, especially when they are as prone to ‘innovation thrill’ as gene drive, which has been referred to as a conservation ‘silver bullet’ technology [1]. That sort of language is concerning. It raises the spectre of arrogant, aloof scientists seeking the thrill of discovery, rather than earnest, integrated researchers seeking solutions to wicked problems. The good news is that this time, those at the forefront of the changing technological and scientific paradigm seem to be aware of the societal, ethical, economic and cultural implications of what they’re doing.

Currently, I am part of a burgeoning social scientific research cluster looking into gene drive, under the leadership of Professor Sarah Hartley at the University of Exeter. As part of my research within this group I recently undertook a large-scale literature review of gene drive research papers, media articles and reports on how the technology could be adapted to conservation or to climate change mitigation. One of the surprising (but rather gratifying) themes to emerge from this exercise was the problem of Nature. Or rather, the problem of what we perceive nature to be.

Researchers in STS might often feel that their repeated cry of “values are just as important [as facts/science/equations]” is going unheard, so it’s refreshing to see synthetic biologists asking the harder questions: “Do we want a world in which countries and organizations routinely and unilaterally alter shared ecosystems regardless of the consequences to others? Isn’t that selfish and narrow focus the very philosophy that conservationists oppose?” [2].

It’s even more pleasing to see collaborative, interdisciplinary research and writing in journals such as Conservation Biology which acknowledge that “Beliefs about naturalness can make technologies, technological products, and environmental interventions more or less acceptable to people” and that call for “renewed focus on what nature means to various publics and expert stakeholders and what kind of nature the public thinks conservation ought to save and how” [3].

What sorts of gene drive applications people are willing to accept will depend greatly on their perceptions of what is ‘natural’ as well as the moral urgency of the problem being addressed (among other things). It has already been shown that public health applications are likely to receive a more positive response than, say, agricultural applications [4].

Conservation applications may prove problematic because of the relative abstraction of the problems being tackled (e.g. invasive rodents on uninhabited islands) and because of our own complex – and sometimes contradictory – understandings of what counts as ‘natural’. A common and understandable concern with gene editing applications intended for wild release is related to how they will impact complex and interconnected ecosystems that are otherwise considered ‘pristine’ or uncontaminated by humanity.

Of course, if one takes a holistic view there is no place on the planet that is ‘untouched’. The manner of our collective existence necessarily has wide ranging and chaotic implications for icebergs and Orangutans alike. The question is whether that warrants further intrusion into the realm of the natural. There are those who prefer to counter by withdrawing – reducing our impact in as many ways as possible. But natural systems have tipping points, and many are already past the point of no return; no amount of reduce, reuse, recycle is going to re-plant the Amazon or bring back the Dodo.

Luckily, it seems that majority of gene drive researchers are aware of their broader responsibilities. The future seems mildly positive. Let’s hope it continues in that vein.

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