Sometimes entire animal populations appear to have some problematic genes. How do you fix such an issue? Gene drives can be used to alter the genome of some individuals and those will propagate the genes to their children. Thus eventually the whole population will end up having those genes. It is an interesting technology but it is very controversial right now due to the possible consequences it might bring to ecosystems and species.
There are several limitations to this technology. Organisms that are diploid have alleles that are mixed with every offspring. Then it has to be made sure that those genetic modifications make it to the reproductive cells. To ensure that such animals have to be edited as embryos.
Scientists have found ways to overcome some of those challenges by using more precise techniques. CRISPR is a method that can edit genes precisely in a genomes location. It can even delete or replace genes. This way it is much easier to perform such experiments. But still the results appear to be inconsistent.
Not only that, but such gene drives may cause bioethics concerns. A lot of experts are concerned that a technology that can affect so many individuals of species may have unforeseen consequences. This can end up wiping out whole species and even creating resistant invasive species that hurt ecosystems.
A research attempted to stop mosquitoes from transmitting malaria in Africa through gene drives. The goal was to engineer mosquitoes with genes that make them unable to survive (infertile), thus killing all the mosquitoes in Africa that are capable of transmitting malaria. In the lab after only four generations, the researchers were able to pass the gene of infertility to 75% of the test population. They used CRISPR for the gene editing and the results were promising. For now such techniques are only used in the lab. Experts are still skeptical of this process. I agree with that, there is a huge possibility that something may go wrong affecting whole ecosystems and species in ways that can not even be predicted.
Other studies using mice and CRISPR to develop gene drives for invasive/parasitic mice species show similar results in the lab.
One valid point by Tony Nolan in an article listed in the sources below, is that even if this technology doesn’t end up being used in the field as an eradication tool, it can help at least develop better transgenic animals to be used as models for diseases in the lab.
For more science and tech news follow Qul Mind on Facebook and Twitter. If you are interested in the topic and want to read more check the sources where you will find the articles i used as my main sources for the information presented in this article. If you have anything to say feel free to do so in the comments. Let me know if i missed anything or if you would like more similar stories.
Image: By Richard Bartz, Munich aka Makro Freak – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4128797