Gene-drive-mediated extinction is thwarted by population structure and evolution of sib mating

J. J. Bull, C. H. Remien and S. M. Krone,  Evolution Medicine and Public Health,  2019:66-81. 2019.

Background and objectives: Genetic engineering combined with CRISPR technology has developed to the point that gene drives can, in theory, be engineered to cause extinction in countless species. Success of extinction programs now rests on the possibility of resistance evolution, which is largely unknown. Depending on the gene-drive technology, resistance may take many forms, from mutations in the nuclease target sequence (e.g. for CRISPR) to specific types of non-random population structures that limit the drive (that may block potentially any gene-drive technology). Methodology: We develop mathematical models of various deviations from random mating to consider escapes from extinction-causing gene drives. A main emphasis here is sib mating in the face of recessive-lethal and Y-chromosome drives. Results: Sib mating easily evolves in response to both kinds of gene drives and maintains mean fitness above 0, with equilibrium fitness depending on the level of inbreeding depression. Environmental determination of sib mating (as might stem from population density crashes) can also maintain mean fitness above 0. A version of Maynard Smith’s haystack model shows that pre-existing population structure can enable drive-free subpopulations to be maintained against gene drives. Conclusions and implications: Translation of mean fitness into population size depends on ecological details, so understanding mean fitness evolution and dynamics is merely the first step in predicting extinction. Nonetheless, these results point to possible escapes from gene-drive-mediated extinctions that lie beyond the control of genome engineering. Lay summary: Recent gene drive technologies promise to suppress and even eradicate pests and disease vectors. Simple models of gene-drive evolution in structured populations show that extinction-causing gene drives can be thwarted both through the evolution of sib mating as well as from purely demographic processes that cluster drive-free individuals