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RNA Guided Gene Drives: Guiding us Towards Extinction or a Better Public Dialogue Around Science?

Molecular Genetics Technical Specialist Jaime Wendt looks at a slide containing DNA at the Human and Molecular Genetics Center Sequencing Core at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, May 9, 2014. Once strictly the domain of research labs, gene-sequencing tests increasingly are being used to help understand the genetic causes of rare disease, putting insurance companies in the position of deciding whether to pay the $5,000 to $17,000 for the tests. Genetics experts say that sequencing more than doubles the chances that families get a diagnosis, and saves spending on multiple tests of single genes. Even if no treatment is found, the tests can also end hugely expensive medical odysseys as parents frantically search for the cause of their child's furtive illness.

In a new paper released in eLife on July 17, “Concerning RNA-guided gene drives for the alteration of wild populations” and a companion piece in Science, “Regulating gene drives”; the authors laid out the theory, risk and benefits and the capacity to regulate RNA guided gene drives which may be developed to suppress and in some instances drive species to extinction. Publishing the pieces simultaneously was designed to begin a public dialogue on a new technology that could have significant impacts on ecosystems world-wide, prior to its development and use. These were discussions initiated during a NSF sponsored workshop developed by the Woodrow Wilson Center and MIT which examined the ecological implications of synthetic biology and resulted in a seminal report, “Creating a Research Agenda for the Ecological Implications of Synthetic Biology”. While the proposed applications of gene drives could provide an important tool for the control of vector borne diseases and the management and potential elimination of invasive species, the ecological implications of such a technology need to be examined thoroughly. Based on the results of the Wilson/MIT report, there are a series of research areas that need to be developed and funded before we would be able to evaluate such a technology.

RNA guided gene drives, which are being contemplated to engineer natural ecosystems, should be scrutinized openly and systematically for both their risks and benefits. A robust public dialogue to determine whether these types of technologies should be funded, developed and potentially utilized should begin now, as the authors advocate. However, these public dialogues need to be just that, a dialogue between the scientists developing the technology and the larger public, where the concerns of the ecological science community and the general public are incorporated into the design and implementation of such an application. In addition, developers of technology should recognize that the public may decide to scuttle some scientific efforts and scientists must honor those decisions.

It is critical that we protect scientific freedom to explore new ideas, place a priority on expanding our understanding of the natural world, and continue to develop breakthroughs that can not only enhance our lives but solve some of our most pressing problems. It’s a positive step forward that the developers of RNA guided gene drives have opened the doors to their lab for public discourse. They should be applauded.  

RNA Guided Gene Drives

RNA Guided Gene Drives

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