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Why does gene drive research matter?

Gene drive approaches could offer complementary, sustainable and scalable strategies to control the transmission of vector-borne diseases and the population of invasive species which threaten sensitive ecosystems. Both vector-borne diseases and invasive alien species are complex issues that existing strategies and tools have not been able to fully address on their own. Their burden for society is enormous in terms of health, economic and social costs, underscoring the critical need for research into novel approaches.

Research into gene drive approaches is essential to help inform decision-making on any potential use of gene drive technologies and to map what could work, how it could work, and understand both the associated risks and benefits. Gene drive research is here to provide evidence-based elements for policymakers and publics to consider when they assess each technology.

Gene drive for the control of vector-borne diseases

One potential application of gene drive is to reduce the burden of vector-borne diseases, such as malaria or dengue. Vector-borne diseases account for more than 17% of all infectious diseases and cause over 700,000 deaths every year. The human and economic cost of these diseases is tremendous: malaria alone is estimated to cost African countries USD $12 billion a year. While existing tools to control vector-borne diseases have helped saved millions of lives, they have not succeeded in achieving elimination. New approaches are needed to address issues such as those of growing insecticide and drug resistance.

For a disease like malaria, a gene drive system could be introduced into a mosquito species to either reduce their ability to transmit the disease or to reduce the population of malaria-transmitting mosquitoes. Although any application of gene drive is several years out from being ready for use, gene drive could one day complement existing approaches for malaria control. Because it would be inherited over successive mosquito generations, a gene drive system could be a cost-effective and sustainable malaria control strategy that requires limited repeat investments, particularly in communities where existing tools may be costly and difficult to implement. Gene drive applications for other mosquito-borne diseases, such as dengue, are also being investigated.

Watch: Why do you think a gene drive approach could help with malaria and dengue?

Gene drive for the control of invasive rodents on islands

Another potential application of gene drive is to help protect biodiversity by reducing populations of invasive species, in particular on islands. Invasive species are the second greatest cause of plant and animal species loss globally. The global economic cost of invasive alien species exceeded $423 billion annually in 2019, with costs having at least quadrupled every decade since 1970. IAS on islands have been a focus of the research on gene drive because islands are particularly affected as they represent the highest concentration of both biodiversity and species extinctions. Island communities, plants and animals are highly impacted by invasive rodents which have invaded nearly 90% of the world’s islands and are a leading cause of extinction in these ecosystems.

Currently, rodenticides are the best available tool for conservationists to eliminate rodents on islands. Though highly effective, these operations are complicated and costly to implement and limited by difficulties in accessing remote areas and negative impacts on non-target species. Gene drive approaches offer an alternative to rodenticides that has the potential to be sustainable, cost-effective, species-specific and more humane. The ongoing research is focusing on a gene drive approach that could reduce the number of invasive mice by driving a trait through the local population that makes females infertile.

Watch: Why do you think a gene drive approach could help control invasive alien species like rats?

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