The ethical way to alter organisms

K. Esvelt,  Boston Globe,  2020.

Just as a single tongue of flame can grow into a raging wildfire, the tragedy of COVID-19 has demonstrated the power of self-spreading biology. While most current efforts necessarily focus on stemming the flames, we have an opportunity to prepare for a future in which natural self-spreading agents are joined by the engineered variety.

To be clear: We don’t currently know how to build new pandemic agents. If we’re lucky, we never will. What we can do — the technology that could set a precedent for safety and ethics — is edit the DNA of organisms in the lab in ways that, if released, would cause those edits to spread through wild populations of the species. From blocking the transmission of diseases to controlling pests without toxic poisons, ecological editing could offer humane ways to benefit health and the environment.
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As my colleagues and I first described in 2014, we can use CRISPR genome editing to duplicate the most powerful form of “gene drive,” a ubiquitous natural phenomenon that happens when a genetic change is inherited more frequently than usual. Encode the CRISPR machinery next to a useful edit we’ve made in the genome, and genome editing will reoccur in every generation, replacing the original with the edited version without limit. In principle, releasing such organisms would gradually alter entire wild populations and associated ecosystems.


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Risk assessment challenges of synthetic gene drive organisms

Risk assessment challenges of synthetic gene drive organisms

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What is CRISPR?