New York Times Magazine Features Island Conservation and the Opportunities and Challenges Surrounding Gene Drives

Jennifer Kahn uncovers the challenges, nuances, and opportunities that gene drive research presents for the world in a new article published in the New York Times Magazine.

Technology is constantly evolving in hopes of making our lives and our world a better place. Genetic technologies are no different and gene drives are on the forefront of this endeavor. In a recent New York Times Magazine article titled, “The Gene Drive Dilemma: We Can Alter Entire Species, But Should We?” science journalist Jennifer Kahn, highlights the challenges associated with gene drive research along with the incredible opportunities this kind of innovation presents to the world.

When considering the rules of normal genetic inheritance, there is a 50-50 chance that offspring will receive a given gene. However, researchers have discovered that there are naturally occurring genetic elements which can bias the inheritance of a given gene, giving that gene a greater chance of being inherited. Scientists have begun looking into developing artificial gene drives—mechanisms that harness these genetic elements—in order to solve some of our world’s most pressing problems. This technology has countless applications including the reduction and even elimination of certain mosquito-transmitted diseases such as zika and malaria. The use of gene drives is also being explored by Island Conservation and the GBIRd partnership to remove invasive rodents from islands, which are pushing native plants and wildlife to extinction through predation, competition, and disease transmission.

Island ecosystems around the world are threatened by the presence of invasive species, with invasive rodents present on more than 80% of the world’s island groups. The GBIRd partnership includes universities, government agencies, and global non-profits all dedicated to understanding if a gene drive can be used to amplify the inheritance of sex-determining genes, resulting in a population of only male or only female offspring. This could effectively and efficiently create a self-eliminating population and remove this invasive species from islands.

“While the use of gene drive rodents is not currently feasible on the Galapagos Islands, the archipelago serves as a prime example of the need for technological advances to remove invasive species from islands and protect wildlife on the verge of extinction.”

Karl Campbell, Regional Executive Director of Latin America, Island Conservation

While gene drive technology remains largely based in laboratories and theory, discussions surrounding the potential benefits and impacts are already part of the public dialogue. Each application of a gene drive has its own set of unique challenges, including the development of regulatory frameworks, social acceptability, and the technical feasibility of its use. Introducing genetically modified rodents to an island for the purposes of biodiversity conservation is just one example of an application where discussion and intentional decision-making is vital. The GBIRd partnership is focused on developing regulatory frameworks and working alongside government entities in the U.S. and Australia to determine guidelines for the use of genetic tools.

As with any promising new technology, the rise of gene drives has also sparked concern around the risks of using this tool, making social acceptance critical to the success of any such technology. Island Conservation, the GBIRd partnership, and organizations such as Target Malaria and the Outreach Network for Gene Drive Research place a heavy focus on involving and obtaining informed consent from communities where these new tools might be employed, as well as engaging more broadly with stakeholders.

“Current research suggests that the spread of gene drives is likely to vary from species to species, with some propagating slowly, if at all, and others more rapidly or widely. Research also suggests that gene drives stay confined to a single species rather than spreading into a related one through interbreeding. But it’s not clear whether that will be true in all species or under all conditions. Researchers are also working on a variety of containment strategies, including drives that stop working after a few generations.”

Jennifer Kahn, New York Times Magazine

As the development of this technology continues, it is vital to engage with the public, consider methods for limiting the spread of genes, and create regulatory frameworks to monitor and ensure precautions are incorporated into the application of the technology.

Read the original article in the New York Times Magazine
Featured photo: Great Shrike-tyrant on Chanaral Island. Credit: Ivan Torres/Island Conservation