Hope for the Future

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Gene Drives and The Age of CRISPR

Imagine for a moment, a world where we are able to perform genetic engineering on such large scales as to effectively engineer nature. In this world, parasites that only cause misery and suffering would not exist, only minimal pesticides and herbicides would be necessary in agriculture, and the environment would be better adapted to maximize positive interactions with all human activities while maintaining sustainability.

While this may all sound like science fiction, the technology that might allow us to reach this utopia is very real, and if we develop it responsibly, this dream may well become reality.

‘Gene drive’ technology, or more specifically, CRISPR gene drives, have been heralded by the press as a potential solution for mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue, and most recently, Zika. In general, gene drive is a technology that allows scientists to bias the rate of inheritance of specific genes in wild populations of organisms. A gene is said to ‘drive’ when it is able to increase the frequency of its own inheritance higher than the expected probability of 50%. In doing so, gene drive systems exhibit unprecedented ability to directly manipulate genes on a population-wide scale in nature.

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Click image for an infographic overview of CRISPR

The idea to use gene drive systems to propagate engineered genes in natural systems is not new.

Indeed, a proposal to construct gene drives using naturally occurring homing nucleases, genes that can specifically cut DNA and insert extra copies of itself, was published by Austin Burt in 2003. In fact, the concept was discussed even before the earliest studies on naturally driving genetic elements — such as transposons, which are small sections of DNA that can insert extra copies of itself — over half a century ago.

However, it is only with advances in modern genome editing technology, such as CRISPR, that scientists are finally able to digitally target gene drives to any desired location in the genome. Ever since the first CRISPR gene drive design was described in a 2014 publication by Kevin Esvelt and George Church, man-made gene drive systems have been successfully tested in three separate species, yeast, fruit fly, and mosquitoes.

Read more: Futurism