Is there a possibility that a gene drive system placed in the genome of one species could move to the genome of another species?

Category: Gene Drive Safety

Yes, genes can move between species under some conditions, although that does not mean that they will be functional in the new species.
DNA moves between species by two routes: 1) interspecific hybridization (introgression) and 2) horizontal (or lateral) gene transfer. If two species are sufficiently closely related to support successful hybridization (mating and production of viable and fertile offspring) and the species co-occur in the same environment, then a gene drive system designed for and introduced into one species could move into the other species. For example, this might be expected for sibling species within the Anopheles gambiae species complex, where most of the species are malaria vectors.

Horizontal (lateral) gene transfer refers to the movement of DNA between species that does not involve mating or hybridization. Horizontal gene transfer is common among bacteria but rare among plants and animals, where it happens on an evolutionary time scale through the mechanisms that remain unclear. Rarer still are examples where the DNA transferred is expressed and retains its original function.

The possibility that an engineered gene drive construct could enter and be functional in unrelated species appears highly unlikely based on the current scientific understanding. Functioning of engineered gene drive technologies depends upon all elements of the gene drive system operating in very specific cells at very specific times. This specificity requires custom molecular elements that will not function properly in other species. Nevertheless, this question should be considered in case-by-case risk assessment.

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