The Current

There needs to be a global policy to govern gene editing, says molecular biologist

Gene drive technology, which can introduce and spread a specific genetic trait through an entire species, is near the point where it leaves the lab and enters the real world. Some experts are calling for a global agreement on how the technology should be deployed, which could make for a showdown between scientists and policy makers at a UN meeting on biodiversity later this week.

Countries will debate gene drive technology at UN Biodiversity Conference

A gene drive uses genetic editing technology like CRISPR to push a desired genetic change through an entire population. (iStock/Getty Images)

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Gene drives are ready to leave the laboratory and enter the real world. But a molecular biologist argues that the technology — which could be used to fundamentally alter the DNA of an entire species — needs global oversight.

In one example of the technology's potential, a mosquito's DNA could be modified so that when the insect breeds, it spreads a specific genetic change. That change could ultimately wipe out an entire malaria-carrying species.

"These organisms are likely to cross international borders, [one country] cannot make these decisions in isolation, that's just not safe and it's not fair, really," molecular biologist Natalie Kofler told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

At the upcoming United Nations Biodiversity Conference, some 196 countries will decide how to address gene drives and may adopt guidelines to limit the applications of gene editing.

Making decisions about the DNA of an entire species cannot be the decision of scientists alone, Natalie Kofler said. (Susanna M. Hamilton/Broad Communications)

Kofler is calling for the enactment of a policy to include local deliberation with global expertise.

"So you have local decision-making authority, in combination with global experts in different fields like ecology, genetics, regulatory policy, etc.," Kofler explains.

"It cannot be science alone."

To discuss the ethical issues surrounding gene drives, Tremonti spoke to:

  • Natalie Kofler, molecular biologist and associate research scientist at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.
  • Andrea Crisanti, professor of molecular parasitology at Imperial College London, and principal investigator for the Target Malaria consortium.
  • Jim Thomas, co-executive director of the ETC Group, an NGO which has been advocating for a moratorium on gene drives and gene editing.

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.

Produced by The Current's Alison Masemann.