Gene Drives Can Wipe Out Entire Species In A Few Generations

Developments in gene manipulation can now render pests sterile, and even ensure exterminator genes are passed along to wipe out entire species. These 'gene drives' are believed to be the solution to the Zika virus, but some scientists insist on the risks of the discovery.

Geneticists have engineered genes with traits inherited and passed on to progeny. The applications are unlimited, but scientists are considering this as a measure to eradicate pests, or at the very least render these harmless.

Solution To The Zika Virus?

A variation of these so-called 'gene drives' were already developed to sterilize malaria-carrying mosquitoes, as well as to inhibit the carriers' ability to pass the malaria parasite to human hosts. Petitions are under way to develop gene drives against the Zika virus, but there are those who worry about the environmental impact of releasing genetically-engineered pests into the wild.

Gene drives are self-replicating fragments of DNA that bypass the rules of genetics; these are engineered to exhibit a higher rate of being inherited. The ability enables the gene to spread to its host population at an exponential rate.

Not Yet Ready For The Wild

Science News reports the technology is both encouraging and alarming. In a paper published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, the authors warn that "proof-of-concept in a few laboratory studies is not sufficient ... to support a decision to release gene-drive modified organisms into the environment."

The report insists that the technology needs to be refined before being considered for deployment. Geneticists should also thoroughly study the biology of gene drives, including their effects on hosts. Releasing the gene drives into the wild could have serious, irreversible impact on the ecosystem.

A Vox article speculates on the consequences of releasing gene drives that go rogue in the wild: "We might wipe out an entire species only to learn later that it was vital in some unforeseen way. We might modify a pest only to find out that it emerges stronger than ever." An antidote of sorts has yet to be developed, which serves as a kill switch that negates gene drives.

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