Katherine Wilson highlights the benefits and potential risks of gene drive.
By: Katherine Wilson
Louise Sales, a campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth, rents a desk at the back of an Edwardian brick building in Hobart. It was there in November that she opened an email to find a trove of digital documents – 1200 emails, contracts and meeting minutes.
“I was shocked,” said Sales, who trained as a biologist, with a masters degree in biodiversity and conservation. “And then outraged. But I’d already started to smell a rat.”
Months before, an article at The Conversation had described new gene technologies that offered “a humane, targeted way to wipe out alien pest species such as mice … Conservationists are understandably excited.”
Sales wasn’t. The documents in her inbox, from a Freedom of Information request by an NGO called Third World Network, described a proposal to release “synthetic rodents” on six Western Australia islands and two US sites in the Pacific.
The documents showed that CSIRO scientists are in a partnership funded by the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) – a branch of the US military – to develop the engineered rodents in its Geelong laboratories, described in a 2017 memorandum of understanding as “biosecure mouse facilities”.
The memorandum was signed by the CSIRO, the University of Adelaide, WA’s Conservation Department and US affiliates to form a group called Genetic Biocontrol of Invasive Rodents (GBIRd), which secured a DARPA grant of “about $6.4 million split roughly evenly” between the participants.
One email reported CSIRO’s “highly successful” trip to Washington, “spruiking the rodent gene drive technologies to various government agencies”. GBIRd then brokered funding “that will require aggressive development of constructed gene drives in mice”.
CSIRO has confirmed to Fairfax it received a “first stage” instalment of “approximately $280,000”.
Sales is one of a growing number of conservationists engaged in fierce debate over whether such gene technologies should be used to aid the cause they are all seeking to advance.
Gene drives are a nascent and controversial DNA process that can obstruct natural rules of inheritance. The process forces altered gene traits through successive generations.
GBIRd scientists are lobbying regulators to permit them to engineer “sex reversal in mice” for “eliminating invasive house mice from island ecosystems”.
Theoretically, released mice would produce only male offspring, eventually ensuring population collapse. Uncontained, this could doom mice to extinction. “One of the proposed release sites is Boullanger Island – a tourist destination just one kilometre from the [Australian] mainland,” said Sales. “There’s no way a release of gene drive mice could be contained there.”
The ecological impacts of this “could be catastrophic”, she added.
A CSIRO spokesperson said: “CSIRO is leading environmental, health and social risk assessment … to prevent native species extinction on islands which are threatened by rat and mouse infestations.”
One GBIRd affiliate is CSIRO’s senior genome engineer, Mark Tizard, who works at Geelong’s Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL), a concrete fortress custom-built “to help protect Australia’s multibillion-dollar livestock and aquaculture industries” from disease.
There, Tizard has explored the potential of CRISPR, a gene-editing tool with which, he says, it’s possible to delete toxin genes from cane toads, determine the sex of chickens or engineer hornless cattle. CRISPR has been described in publicity for a recent Melbourne forum as having created “a storm in the scientific community” with patent fights “tearing the scientific community apart”according to technology news website The Verge.
Jennifer Doudna, one of the key figures in the row over who owns CRISPR, spoke at that forum at Melbourne’s Convention Centre earlier this month.
She described research to “create pigs that will be in principle better organ donors … more human-like” and the risk of using CRISPR “for eugenics”. There’s also talk of using gene drives (a process enabled by CRISPR) to cull feral cats and engineer malaria-carrying mosquitoes into extinction.
“The beauty of gene drives is species-specificity,” Tizard told an audience at the Australasian Vertebrate Pest Conference in Canberra. “It allows us to place a gene that will duplicate itself into a pest species.”
However this gene drive research has potential military and industrial farming uses – for bioweapons, crop pest control and modified farm animals.
In one email obtained by Third World Network, microbiologist Royden Saah suggests “framing of this technology” as “preserving island biodiversity”, mentioning “distant future applications lightly”.
But DARPA “has not been shy about its real interest in gene drive technology – and that it isn’t conservation”, reports tech magazine Gizmodo.
DARPA is candid about the “multiple capabilities” of this research, but says it is for defence more than offence – “biosafety and biosecurity tools”.
Throughout its history, DARPA has partnered with agritech giant Monsanto to develop products ranging from chemical weapons (including Agent Orange) to robotic bees. DARPA itself began as a Cold War outfit conceived by industrial chemist Charles Thomas, Monsanto’s president and chairman.
MIT microbial biologist Kevin Esvelt, who pioneered gene drives, reportedly said they are so riskythat championing them for species eradication was “an embarrassing mistake”. “Why should you trust a scientist,” he asked the Melbourne forum, “who insists on doing work on this kind of technology in secret?”
Sales believes CSIRO and GBIRd are steeped in secrecy. “CSIRO and its GBIRd partners are already developing a gene drive in mice and have selected potential islands for its release. All without any public discussion,” she says.
In May, according to an email obtained by Third World Network, DARPA asked GBIRd for “continued cooperation in holding off on media engagement … please politely decline” media enquiries and “refer the reporter to DARPA Public Affairs”.
Approached about this article, a CSIRO spokesperson initially said it was “not suitable for us to comment” and emailed back a GBIRd statement which said it was “important to view the broader context”.
“In the case of the mice on the island, if traditional methods are not feasible, such as the use of poison baits, are we willing to risk extinction of the seabirds?” it asked.
A battle of values
Outside Melbourne’s gene drive forum, Sales handed out pamphlets warning that Australia may become the first country to allow the release of these synthetic organisms. She says this presents “serious and potentially irreversible threats to biodiversity” and threats to “national sovereignty, peace and food security”. Esvelt’s studies found that “current CRISPR gene drive systems are likely to be highly invasive in wild populations” and could devastate ecosystems.
Tizard stood congenially by Sales’ side while she listed non-synthetic ways to combat invasive species and malaria. He explained that he and Sales both have the environment at heart.
Each is concerned about preserving biodiversity in Australia, where more than 1800 native species and systems are at risk of extinction. Our conservation is a “national disgrace” and “in crisis”, according to scientists who accuse the federal government of “neglect”. Australia’s most recent State of the Environment report concluded that new approaches are urgently needed.
But there’s a broad church of conservation values. In the last decade interventions by powerful lobby groups including “ecomodernists” have seen global conservation science descend, as a letter to Nature described it, “into vitriolic, personal battles in universities, academic conferences, research stations, conservation organisations and even the media”. The letter was signed by 240 conservation scientists.
The conflict largely stems from the challenge of invasion of habitats. Many ecomodernists come from fields outside conservation – signatories to its manifesto include economists and gene engineers – and believe market mechanisms and “powerful technologies such as nuclear power and plant genetic engineering” will help humans “increase their standard of living while doing less damage to the environment”. One leading ecomodernist, former British environment minister Owen Paterson, argued that humans can “decouple from dependence on the natural environment”.
By contrast, traditional “ecocentrist” conservationists regard humans as part of – not apart from – a global ecosystem. Sales responded to Paterson’s argument by quoting Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that created them.”
In 2010, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) saw the debut of a well-funded campaign to recast the role of synthetic biology from an industrial tool to a conservation one. A group of 111 (later 170) NGOs responded by calling for a moratorium on synthetic biology, describing it as “an extreme form of genetic engineering”.
A further 200 scientists issued a statement saying: “The claimed consensus on GM [genetically modified] organism safety does not exist.”
Prominent scientists including David Suzuki and Vandana Shiva supported the moratorium call, even as NGOs proclaiming the cause of “genetic rescue” emerged, with conferences, strategy meetings and forums to court policymakers and conservationists.
Jim Thomas co-directs the conservationist ETC Group, which published the documents obtained by Third World Network.
He recalls attending one of the first “genetic rescue” events, a “big fancy meeting in Cambridge”. At the time he reported: “Despite the flowing drinks and mood music, the courtship didn’t necessarily go smoothly.”
The biotech organisers behaved “like a persistent matchmaker” who “kept returning doggedly to the question of what project, scheme or handy technofix might the two ‘sides’ be able to dream up together”.
Also at the Cambridge meeting was Jon Hoekstra, then chief scientist of the World Wide Fund for Nature. He recalls it very differently.
The meeting was “one of the first times that experts from bioengineering and conservation science met … to explore how these previously separate research arenas may intersect”, he said. His initial reaction was “a mix of curiosity and caution”, but he was won over because “the current toolkit of conservation interventions is not keeping up with the pace, scale, or scope of the crisis”.
He became convinced that gene drives “might give us a better chance of saving species from extinction”.
Managing the message
Hoekstra is on the board of Island Conservation, an outfit that exterminates invasive rodents on islands. Thomas says that the idea of GBIRd came out of a 2015 California workshop, with publicity managed by Island Conservation’s communications director Heath Packard.
The FOI files obtained by Third World Network contain Packard’s emails. In one, he asks GBIRd to “sign up and monitor the activity” of a genetic science group “dominated by conservation-oriented folks”. He warns of “detractors” and “sceptics” among them, adding: “Be cautious – there are a few journalists monitoring the list.”
He nominates as an adviser to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Forum on Synthetic Biology, and enlists GBIRd members to recruit others. Tizard participates in the UN forum, arguing against “stringent regulations” on the grounds that lab trials can assess “plausible pathways to harm” before the release of synthetic organisms.
Packard warns of “detractors who are trying to foment fear and misinformation to bolster their campaign goals to establish research moratoria in global policy settings like the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. We are keen to see positive framing of this news that does not feed their views.”
He offers “coaching if we find ourselves under attack in the Media [sic] by detractors concerned about the ‘colour’ of the DARPA funding”. Elsewhere in the files, Emerging Ag, a biotech PR company, co-ordinates the “fight back against gene drive moratorium proponents”, recruiting scientists and officials to UN expert panels.
Last May, GBIRd’s Todd Kuiken expressed concern about DARPA “bending the entire field of synthetic biology towards military applications”.
In July, Packard instructed the group to target Kuiken with “specific in-reach” and “remind him he’s on the GBIRd team, despite his personal views about DARPA”. He emailed Kuiken, telling him to “align your messaging” and “avoid criticising GBIRd and our pursuit of DARPA”.
Elsewhere, Kuiken confesses to feeling “conflicted” about potential dual use of the technologies, asking: “What could it mean in terms of international treaties?” (The UN’s Enmod convention prohibits “military or any other hostile use of environmental modification techniques”.)
Science and the ‘social licence’
CSIRO has allocated $3.5 million for “community research related to synthetic biology” to secure “social licence” for its gene drive ambitions.
Sales believes this is “a cynical marketing exercise for a technology they’ve already decided they want to use. CSIRO clearly has no interest in a genuine societal debate.”
A CSIRO spokesperson said: “As Australia’s national research agency, it is necessary that CSIRO understands and where beneficial to the nation, contributes to, the globally growing area of gene technology research.”
GBIRd “will engage the community in making decisions about … the tools” to combat invasive species, the spokesperson continued. GBIRd aims “to facilitate the enabling conditions” for releasing synthetic mice; including “public acceptance” and “regulatory considerations”.
But “scientists with serious conflicts of interest sit on all the boards advising the government on genetically modified organisms,” said Sales. “Effectively, industry is writing the rules.”
Australia’s Office of Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) has a revolving-door relationship with industry. Its first regulator, Sue Meek, held concurrent biotech industry appointments, and she was advised by Michael Leader, from AgBiotech, who later led Monsanto’s regulatory affairs team. Current regulator Raj Bhula has a background in pesticide and military training industries, and the OGTR’s technical advisory committee is crewed by many agritech industry stakeholders.
The OGTR was invited to comment but didn’t respond.
Mark Tizard from the CSIRO, who is also an OGTR adviser, is lobbying to “exclude certain new technologies from regulation” based on their outcomes. Some scientists believe CRISPR (the tool behind gene drives) ensures “precise” and “safe” outcomes because it overcomes the hazards of older gene modification methods (which can result in novel proteins, or unexpected genome mutations).
CRISPR works like “molecular scissors”, performing in a “very precise fashion that allows just the change that’s desired”, Doudna told the Melbourne forum. Some scientists have argued that these new techniques should not be regulated by the same rules as earlier genetic modification processes. But the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility rejected this view, saying CRISPR’s claimed benefits are “scientifically unjustified”.
In the book Gene Editing, Law, and the Environment, legal scholar Irus Braverman raises concerns that gene drives are “inadequately regulated”, but Tizard wrote CSIRO’s case for policy that’s “less restrictive” and “will encourage investment” to “Australian agriculture and biotechnology industries”.
A CSIRO spokesperson said its scientists “are routinely engaged as subject matter experts in external advisory panels, and are governed by strict codes of conduct and confidentiality”.
Sales believes this regulatory influence presents “a serious conflict of interest. Should the proponents of gene editing and gene drives really be advising on how – or even whether – these techniques should be regulated?”