Gene Drives: A Controversial Tool to Fight Malaria

H. Albert,,  2020.

The advent of CRISPR gene editing has enabled the creation of gene drives, a technology that can increase the odds of a certain gene being inherited. While the technology could help us tackle malaria and control invasive species, the scientific community is divided on whether it is ethical.

The possibility of creating gene drives was introduced into the scientific community in 2003 by Austin Burt, a professor at Imperial College London. Burt was studying ‘selfish genes’ that can copy themselves into a specific target DNA sequence. He suggested that these genes, called homing endonucleases, could be used to make the majority of an organism’s offspring inherit a specific gene, instead of only half of it.

“A gene drive is based on a natural phenomenon that occurs in many simple organisms like fungi, yeast, molds… that uses DNA cutting and repair to increase [the gene’s] own frequency over generations,” says Alekos Simoni, a researcher at Imperial College London who works in the development of gene drives as scientific manager of the Italian non-profit Polo GGB.

This technology has a lot of potential. For example, it could be used to decimate populations of malaria-carrying mosquitoes by making the majority of their offspring male. However, there are concerns about the permanent nature of these genetic modifications and whether it could cause irreparable damage to the ecosystem it is used in.


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