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.
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.
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.