After over 78 environmental and agricultural organisations signed a letter this week calling for a moratorium on gene drive technology, EURACTIV took a closer look at the controversial technology to find out about what it is and the implications it holds.
The letter, which was sent on Tuesday (30 June), urges the European Commission to outlaw the release of so-called ‘gene drive organisms’ (GDOs), calling the technology “incompatible” with the Commission’s proposed EU strategy on biodiversity protection. But scientists say the technology holds enormous potential for eradicating some of the world’s deadliest diseases.
Synthetic gene drives are a new form of genetic engineering, created via the genetic engineering method CRISPR/CAS9, and are intended to permanently modify or eradicate populations, or even whole species, in the wild.
They are currently defined as a system where genetic elements or traits have more than the usual 50% chance of being inherited, irrespective of whether they benefit or harm the organism inheriting them.
The idea of gene drive technology is to force the inheritance of detrimental genetic traits. In this way, scientists hope to reprogramme or eradicate species such as disease-carrying insects and invasive species.
This is a key distinction between GDOs and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which are explicitly designed to contain the spread of modified traits.
Debate about if and how GDOs could be safely employed is proceeding. As it currently stands, GDOs fall under the EU GMO directive but an EFSA expert working group, mandated by the Commission, is currently developing recommendations for regulations on gene drive modified organisms, expected by the end of 2020.
While it may sound far fetched, this is far from mere conjecture, with experiments already well underway both in the EU and elsewhere.
Most recently, Imperial College London created a modification that was able to eliminate populations of malaria-carrying mosquitoes in lab experiments. This work was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation under the Target Malaria project.
According to the World Health Organisation, each year more than 200 million new cases of malaria are reported and, although countries have dramatically reduced the total number of malaria cases and deaths since 2000, progress in recent years has stalled.
Lead scientist Professor Andrea Crisanti, from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial, said that this study represented a “key milestone” which “opens a new avenue for scientists to develop genetic vector controls of malaria with the aim of eradicating the disease.”
Co-lead author Dr Drew Hammond added that, although they are still in the experimental phase, gene drive technologies could be a “game-changer in the fight to eliminate malaria”.
But gene drives face fierce opposition from certain environmental advocacy groups, who stress an urgent need for independent and informed analysis of GDOs and their implications.
The signatory organisations are calling on the EU to back a global moratorium on the release of GDOs at the next Conference of the Parties (COP 15) to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.
This is something that Martin Häusling, agricultural policy spokesman for the Greens and member of the European Parliament’s Environment Committee, called a “fundamental step for biodiversity,” warning that the long term consequences of this technology is “not foreseeable”.
Mareike Imken, from the German initiative Save Our Seeds, concurred, saying that “while the risks of gene drive technology have not yet been scientifically assessed, it could have a massive impact on already damaged ecosystems,” adding that it is “irresponsible to expose species and ecosystems to further risks“.
She added that the use of such a technology “contradicts the aim of biodiversity conservation and the precautionary principle, which is the basis for international and EU nature conservation law.”
“A global moratorium would give us the time to assess environmental and health risks, publicly evaluate and discuss this technology and to establish missing regulations and global decision-making mechanisms. In the meanwhile, no-one in the world should use this technology,” Imken said.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]