A new possible environmental disaster: the gene spill

New genetic modification technology such as CRISPR-Cas9 has opened the door to transformative biological research, but it has also set the table for some novel kinds of technological problems for which we aren’t at all prepared including one that I call the “gene spill”.

The striking potential upsides to CRISPR paired with some of the serious risks such as gene spills leave us with dilemmas over things like gene spills.
We want to advance the technology, but how do we lower risks?

Gene spill

We should be very concerned about the possibility that a self-propagating genetic modification could end up out in the real world via a technology called “gene drive” in such a way that it spins out of control. That would be a gene spill.

We humans will have unprecedented power to genetically modify our world and change ecosystems via gene drive in ways that could be essentially permanent. For instance on the positive side, via intentional use of gene drive we could make it much harder for humans to get malaria or Zika from mosquitoes or other diseases with insects, which might also be prevented from damaging crops. At the same time gene drive could lead to genetic changes in our world and in ourselves in ways that are very negative or that could spiral out of control.

Via gene drive, researchers are likely going to be able to genetically modify entire real world populations of organisms in certain areas. However, these self-spreading gene drives have the chance to cause serious negative consequences.

Gene drive could also “escape” unintentionally. Gene drive organisms that are the focus of research in the lab might escape and genetically modify their brethren in the wild, or there could be horizontal transfer to other species.

Whether intentional or accidental, the eventual presence of gene drive organisms in the wild could pose profound risks and the only likely possible way to mitigate ecological disaster would be through trying to wipe out all members of a species in an effected area.

Think of a gene drive out of control in the wild as akin to an invasive species that can robustly promote its own replication and genetically modify other organisms. This sounds like something out of sci-fi, but it is really quite possible.

These gene spills, while not as visually evident as something like an oil spill, could cause equal or greater harm. Gene spills could also occur even in humans due to terrorist activity through weaponized genetic elements or simply accidentally through research gone astray.

Is the presence of a gene drive out in the wild inevitable?

I hope not.

If not, then the best action we can take now is to try to prevent that from happening through further education and discussion of options. If gene spills are inevitable or nearly so, then we should be more actively researching contingency plans and such research should be funded by NIH, DARPA, etc. Some research in this area is already ongoing and some are talking about how it could simple to reverse problems. Stay tuned for a follow up piece on the simple reversal idea and why the narrative on that has been potentially harmful.