Proceed with Caution: A promising technique for synthetic biology is fraught with risks

August 19, 2014

Genes in sexually reproducing organisms typically have a 50 percent chance of being inherited. Some genes have naturally evolved methods of improving these odds; these are called “gene drives.” The genomes of almost every sexually reproducing species contain either active gene drives or remnants of drives. Ten years ago, Austin Burt of Imperial College London proposed designing drives to alter genes in natural populations of mosquitoes. But the difficulty of precisely editing genomes to create engineered drives stymied the realization of Burt’s vision. This is about to change.

The recent development of a powerful genome editing tool called CRISPR/Cas9 allows scientists to insert, replace, delete, and regulate genes. Since Cas9 can cut essentially any gene and works in most organisms, it could in principle be used to make gene drives in any sexually reproducing organism. CRISPR gene-drive laboratory experiments in yeast and mosquitoes are under way. Development of purpose-built gene drives in the next few years is very likely.

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