With CRISPR, is GMO also for Google?

Google is reportedly getting into the genetic modification business. It plans to use a sexy, new genetic technology called “gene drive”, which has both excited and unsettled scientists due to its great power to make GMOs in nature via reproductive chain reactions.

This move toward genetic modification is part of a larger trend of Google and now its parent company Alphabet branching out into biology. Alphabet has said that “G is for Google”, but there could be the letters “G-M-O” in there too.

GMO google

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with GMOs. Some of my own research focuses on GMOs in the lab for genetic research on development and disease, but this move on gene drive technology is a new one for Google and into potentially risky territory.

What Google or at least one of its leaders Linus Upson seems to be contemplating is the use of powerful genetic modification experiments out in nature. It could be done, for example, via gene drive to target mosquitos that transmit malaria and save a lot of human lives. It’s a great idea in principle, but in practice because gene drive technology is so robust and self-propagating it could spiral out of control with huge, unintended consequences.

So what exactly is gene drive?

Gene drive can genetically modify an entire population into GMOs and do it millions of times faster than evolution changes DNA naturally. In principle, any sexually reproducing species can be subject to forced genetic modification with gene drive and the mutations produced would be heritable. The most talked about form of gene drive is powered by a gene editing technology called CRISPR-Cas9.

By analogy, gene drive is like a computer virus but for organisms and one that changes code (in this case DNA via mutations). By design gene drive is sexually transmitted to essentially all offspring. It’s a GMO chain reaction.

For more background, I blogged about gene drive earlier this month and potential concerns over gene drive were the focus of my recent interview with leading geneticist Harmit Malik.

Based on Google’s investment in CRISPR genetic modification company Editas Medicine via Google Ventures and a report from The Information website, it would seem that gene drive is in the company’s future and there’s a seed there already in the present:

“Linus Upson, the man who helped build Google’s Chrome browser alongside new CEO Sundar Pichai, recently said he intended to start a biology project involving genetically engineered mosquitoes that would help wipe out other mosquitoes that carry illnesses like dengue fever and malaria”

Sounds wonderful, right? However, if gene drive went awry there might be almost nothing that we could do about it because it is self-propagating like a virus. Still gene drive is a seductive idea and this plan by Google seems consistent with the new Alphabet corporate path to change the world beyond computing at least in part via Google X, the research arm of Google:

“Whatever happens to the idea, it would seem to fit within the new corporate structure announced Monday by Larry Page, who wants to pursue world-changing ventures far beyond the Web business he’s occupied for nearly two decades. Alphabet’s mission is to incubate and help operate a variety of businesses, from hardware (Nest and a separate robotics division) and “smart” cities (Sidewalk Labs) to self-driving car technology and human biological improvement (Calico and the Google X life-sciences group). The formation of Alphabet, which will run these divisions separately from, but under the same umbrella, as Google, is expected to be completed in the fourth quarter.”

What should we make of Google and Alphabet’s expanding ventures into biology reportedly including now genetic modification and gene drive? I’m not sure, but I hope they realize how powerful and potentially dangerous gene drive may turn out to be.

11 thoughts on “With CRISPR, is GMO also for Google?”

  1. I’m still wondering how exactly Google got interested in Life Sciences. I mean it’s good for people who care, but why Google?

  2. Hi Paul,
    Thanks for the response. The reverse gene drive idea looks interesting. I guess that before trying to wipe out malaria-infested mosquitoes a prudent scientist would first demonstrate that the reverse gene drive actually did return the genes to their original state. But I fear that that would not be sufficient. Having changed the gene, one then expects epigenetic changes to follow — reversing back to the original gene may still leave you with a functionally-modified organism.

    I suspect that if we go down this gene-drive path then there will always be some new problem that crops up and which some clever person will try to fix with a new gene-drive.

    By terminal gene-drive, I was making an analogy with the terminal animal that was swallowed by the little old lady who swallowed the fly:
    “She swallowed a horse, she’s dead of course.”

    1. Hey Brian,
      Got it on the “terminal” drive. My sense is that even following a successful reverse gene drive that we’d have to call the resulting organism a GMO and it could have new properties. Reverse gene drive is sort of like “fight fire with fire”…risky.

      I discuss gene drive in my upcoming book (http://www.amazon.com/GMO-Sapiens-Life-Changing-Science-Designer/dp/9814678538 ). One other concern is that gene drive could be used in a eugenic kind of manner as a weapon to force human genetic modification toward what some nut views as a “better” state. Yes, humans reproduce slowly giving time to try to ameliorate such an attack, but an infectious gene drive could have catastrophic effects in people.

  3. Given that genes can actually in rare cases jump between species, what if the gene drive got out of malaria carrying mosquito species and into some useful insect like Bees or Ladybirds?

    It is probably a small possibility. But could someone at least put a non terminal gene drive with some identifying DNA out there to see what happens first? By non terminal I mean one that doesn’t result in infertile (or all male) offspring designed to drive down or wipe out a species locally.

    1. @Jim.
      This is a great comment. Horizontal transfer is a concern and in theory it could even occur between mosquitos and people via a bite.
      There are many possible unintended consequences such as this. Gene drive released into nature (either intentionally or by accident) could be very much like an oil spill in terms of effects on the environment. It would be contagious and self-propagating.

  4. Whatever happened to malaria vaccine efforts? Has it been proven impossible to make? If Google wants to wipe out malaria, why not fund vaccine (or improved treatment) research?

  5. @Brian,
    You should read the background post and my interview with Harmit.
    George Church has proposed a reverse gene drive to take out a gene drive gone wrong.
    What do you mean by terminal gene drive?
    My sense is that Google’s leaders want to do some concrete hugely good thing in the world outside of computing and the idea of attacking malaria is appealing. Gene drive is sexy and powerful so it could be like a magnet, but it’s self-propagating nature and uncertain outcomes make it very dangerous out in the wild world.

  6. Hi Paul, I don’t feel as though I have a handle on this “gene drive” method. I’m reminded of the history of biological controls — which could be parodied by the kiddies song “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly”. I can almost hear a new song about gene drives to fix gene drives. What would the terminal gene drive be?

  7. I can’t help but wonder about the business model? Google makes a genetically modified organism, releases it into the wild and wipes out the problem. It’s sort of like making cars that never break down and never go out of fashion…

    Ultruism? PR? Or is there a catch?

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