DNA Research Sparks Ethical Debate
Scientific techniques that can wipe out invasive species or alter mosquitoes’ ability to carry disease are advancing, raising concerns about the ethics of permanently changing the natural world, experts say.
This fast-moving field of science — which involves changing the biology of creatures by interfering with their DNA — is increasingly being debated not only for human health purposes but also in conservation circles. Perhaps the most controversial type of research is known as a “gene drive,” which ensures that a certain trait is passed down from parent to offspring. It eventually leads to genetic changes throughout the entire species.
Projects being considered include one to populate islands with altered mice that will only bear male offspring, ensuring an end to future generations, scientists said at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress. Another idea is to save endangered birds on the Hawaiian islands by releasing altered mosquitoes that cannot carry avian malaria.
Other approaches, such as the Oxitec mosquito developed by Intrexon, is not technically a “gene-drive” approach but would cut down on the population of mosquitoes by introducing altered males whose offspring cannot survive.
Proponents of gene-drive technology say it eliminates the need for polluting pesticides and could offer a more effective remedy against invasive species than any tool on hand. Opponents, however, fear the impacts of permanently altering life forms on Earth and the unknown — and likely irreversible — effects on Earth’s creatures and its ecosystems.
Kevin Esvelt, an assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is among the first scientists to propose using gene-editing, or CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) technology, to alter species. He is also one of the most cautious voices on its potential uses.
“As a scientist who worked on it, I am particularly concerned because we scientists are ultimately morally responsible for all the consequences of our work,” Esvelt said at a panel discussion at the IUCN meeting.
“It should be a requirement that no one gets to build a gene drive or any technology designed to alter the shared environment in a laboratory without making their proposals public first,” he said.
“If something goes wrong in the laboratory, it can affect people outside the laboratory,” Esvelt added. “That means if you do it behind closed doors — as is traditional in science — then you are not giving people a voice in a decision that might affect them.”
He also said the current regulatory environment is “all based around release. And not really stringent enough, frankly, if you ask me.”
Others at the same panel, however, called for quick action to save imperiled species from invasive species and disease before they disappear forever.
Members of the IUCN voted for caution on gene-drive technology at the ongoing World Conservation Congress, a meeting of environmentalists and heads of state from around the world in September 2016.
A nonbinding motion was adopted that called for IUCN members to refrain “from supporting or endorsing research, including field trials, into the use of gene drives for conservation or other purposes” until a rapid assessment, due by 2020, is completed.
British primatologist Jane Goodall and dozens of other environmentalists and scientists have signed an open letter expressing concern about the use of gene drives in military, agriculture and conservation. The letter calls for a halt to all proposals for the use of gene-drive technologies, “given the obvious dangers of irretrievably releasing genocidal genes into the natural world.”