Technology Factsheet: Gene Drives

J. Lunshof, C. Shachar, R. Edison, A. Jayanti,  Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs,  2020.

Gene drives can be defined as genetic elements that pass from parents to unusually high numbers of their offspring due to biased inheritance (sometimes referred to as the possession of “selfish” genetic elements).1,2 There are different ways of achieving this biased inheritance needed for a drive, but the shared outcome is one where the offspring of a parent carrying a certain genetic variant has over a 50% likelihood of inheriting it. With regular inheritance, in the absence of a gene drive, each of the two alleles carried by a parent are equally likely to be inherited by offspring.

By implementing modern gene editing technology, such as CRISPR, gene drives can be manufactured by humans to intentionally suppress a target population or spread a trait through a population. For example, gene drives could be used to target weeds, spreading a trait that would reverse their evolved resistance to non-toxic herbicides. Gene drives could also be used for human health purposes, in particular for the control of vector-borne diseases, such as malaria through populations of mosquitos.

There are many outstanding governance questions with regards to the specific research, development, testing, and deployment of gene drives—including who should be taking ownership of drafting regulations and policy. At this stage, few countries currently have regulations that are defined specifically for gene drive, and in most countries the closest relevant regulations are those written for a broader swath of gene editing technologies. As there becomes more momentum around the potentially unique opportunities of gene drives though, it is important for U.S. legislators and policymakers to remain engaged in the technology’s technical, ethical, and practical progress and consider technology-specific governance.