Björn Rust (he/him) is a post-industrial designer cum researcher, innovator and educator, developing context-sensitive innovation practices for people, planet and beyond.

Recent writings

  1. Opportunity hoarding
  2. Doing away with bullshit
  3. The course of my life, so far

The gene-drive

Two years ago, Radiolab presented a story on a relatively new gene-editing technology called CRISPR. Since then, CRISPR—which is short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats—has enjoyed a great deal of attention. According to Heidi Ledford in an article for Nature, it had appeared in some 600 research papers by the end of 2014, about six months before Radiolab released their story. For those who understand the possibilities of this technology, it is easy to understand why it would attract such frenzied attention. With this technology, researchers claim we could fight cancer, reduce the risk of Alzheimer's and maybe even bring animals back from extinction.

Recently Radiolab updated their story, in which they share an anecdote featuring Kevin Esvelt from the MIT Media Lab as he walked through the Emerald Necklace in Boston wondering »what if we could encode CRISPR in the genome, what if we programmed the genome to do genome editing on its own?«. With this question, the CRISPR/Cas9 endonuclease gene-drive was born.

The implication of a gene-editing genome is vast. Unlike a regular CRISPR intervention that follows the Mendelian inheritance model, gene-drive will replicate indefinitely. At first glance, this seems to be an amazing force for good if we imagine it in the context of a malaria-resistant mosquito that has a 100% chance of passing on its resistance to 100% of its offspring. But it takes just a moment to understand how dangerously uncontrollable the effects of such an intervention might be.

In fact, by 2015 the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a report which stated:

Gene-drive modified organisms hold promise for addressing difficult-to-solve challenges, such as the eradication of insect-borne infectious diseases and the conservation of threatened and endangered species. However, proof-of-concept in a few laboratory studies to date is not sufficient to support a decision to release gene-drive modified organisms into the environment. The potential for gene drives to cause irreversible effects on organisms and ecosystems calls for a robust method to assess risks. A phased approach to testing, engagement of stakeholders and publics, and clarified regulatory over-sight can facilitate a precautionary, step-by-step approach to research on gene drives without hindering the development of new knowledge.

As it stands, researchers like Kevin Esvelt are experimenting with gene-drives, which include fail-safes that prevent it from surviving beyond just a few generations. But even so, he warns that this technology means that it is now »... at least theoretically possible for one person to decide to change the local or possibly the global environment«.

However worrisome that is, the bigger issue is the ethical implications of one person making, without consent, a genetic change to not just one organism but to all future generations of that organism.

Inspired by: Radiolab: Update: CRISPR


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