First synthetic gene drive for plants could help eradicate weeds

Erik Stokstad,  Science,  2024.

More than a decade ago, a research group used the genome editor CRISPR to put evolution on fast forward, spurring a gene to spread throughout a population of lab-reared fruit flies many times faster than it normally could in nature. Mosquitoes with CRISPR-based “gene drives” came soon after, then mice a few years later—advances that brought a fraught mix of technological promise and ethical complexity. Proponents tout gene drives as a way to prevent insect-borne diseases, wipe out rats and other invasive creatures, and even help prevent extinction of endangered species. But one set of organisms had stood apart from the excitement: plants.

Now, geneticists report that synthetic gene drives can work in flora, too. Circumventing a long-standing hurdle, two teams have independently engineered Arabidopsis thaliana, a small mustard popular for lab work, to carry a genetic payload that is inherited by up to 99% of offspring. Modeling suggests a similar gene could permeate a natural plant population in 10 to 30 generations. “What they’ve achieved is pretty amazing,” says Paul Neve, a weed scientist at the University of Copenhagen. “It is clever and innovative.”

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