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Gene drive promises: where are we?

A recent article published by the journal Nature explores different applications of gene drive technology for public health and environmental conservation purposes. Gene drive has the potential to defeat vector-borne diseases and control pests, according to the publication. However, scientists are aware of its technical challenges and still working to respond to questions such as the potential risks to ecosystems and human health. The piece highlights that scientists are aware of the many technical challenges that gene drive research presents and are still working to respond to many questions.

One of the main sources of skepticism towards gene drive is the probability of resistance to the genetic modifications arising promptly, and thereby negating any positive impacts from the technology. Yet, Andrea Crisanti, a geneticist at Imperial College and a member of Target Malaria, has proved that this is not necessarily the case. In 2018, his team successfully crashed a population of caged mosquitos Anopheles gambiae by using a drive that disrupts the fertility gene.

Despite these impressive results, scientists emphasize that is still a long way before any gene drive organisms could be released in the environment. Researchers are currently studying how to scale up experiments and building ecological models to explore the benefits and risks of a wild release safely.

In the case of mammals, gene drive experiments have not been as successful yet as in the case of mosquitoes. However, it is not too soon to start discussing possible risks and working with ethicists and ecologists, according to the Genetic Biocontrol of Invasive Rodents (GBIRd), a partnership of organisations advancing gene drive research to protect island species from extinction. Royden Saah, GBIRd’s programme manager, emphasizes “no matter how fast the technologies move, we can advance the social sciences and the ethics now.”

The full article is available at the Nature’s website.

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