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Could gene flow from gene drive organisms cause harm to local ecosystems?

By Dr Prasad Paradkar, Group Leader, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)

As part of its efforts to contribute to an informed debate on gene drive, the Outreach Network for Gene Drive Research conducted a series of video interviews with experts and researchers working on gene drive research. These attempt to explore some of the most common questions around gene drive technologies. In the video “Could gene flow from gene drive organisms cause harm to local ecosystems?” Prof Luke Alphey (formerly The Pirbright Institute) and I, discuss whether gene flow from a gene drive organism could have negative consequences on the ecosystem in which the gene drive is released. 

“Could gene flow from gene drive organisms cause harm to local ecosystems?” with Dr Prasad Paradkar, CSIRO, and Prof Luke Alphey, formerly The Pirbright Institute.  

Gene flow is the transfer of genes from one population to another. It can be measured by identifying genetic markers in different populations and comparing these. Whilst gene flow is common between populations of the same species, it is extremely rare between unrelated species. As Prof Alphey mentions in the video, mating is the most common mechanism for gene flow to take place.

So what would happen if gene flow from a gene drive organism to a non-target species were to occur? For most gene drive designs there would be limited consequences: the modification might be able to be detected through molecular methods, but there wouldn’t be any visible effects. In general, the potential for gene flow from a gene drive construct to occur will vary from one gene drive to another, based on its design. Because of this, risk assessments should be carried out on a case-by-case basis to avoid any potential negative impacts. Moreover, recent developments such as precision drive systems, which are capable of efficiently targeting a unique trait of a population, could be used to further reduce the likelihood of gene flow from gene drive organisms to species of non-target organisms. For more details, you can watch the video here.

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