The parallel publication of a 27-author Science policy forum article and kickoff of a National Academy of Sciences taskforce last month signal a focused effort by the scientific community to outline the risks of CRISPR-based gene drive and develop safeguards against its misuse. The push is a model of how communication across a field and specific molecular strategies could pre-emptively address concerns about controversial new technologies such as gene editing.
Gene drive refers to any strategy that enables the spread of an allele at frequencies that are higher than predicted by Mendelian inheritance. It occurs in nature too, such as during replicative transposition, in which a transposon facilitates its own insertion into new loci during replication. And although the idea of designing gene drives to spread synthetic alleles across populations is not new, until now it has been difficult to achieve in practice.
While gene editing in humans has elicited its own debate because it can be used to manipulate the germline, gene drive presents additional fears because the escape of mutated organisms from a laboratory could cause genetic alterations to spread throughout an entire species in the wild.
The urgency stems from the easy accessibility of gene drive technology to lab researchers, coupled with its potential for far-reaching effects.
"From a technical level, anyone who knows how to use CRISPR to edit the genes of a sexually reproducing organism knows how to build a gene drive and potentially spread it through the population," said Kevin Esvelt, who is an author on the Science article, a panelist on the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) committee and a technology development fellow at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. Together with his advisor George