Technology has reached incredible heights over the past decade. Genetic engineering technology is a notable exemplar of what technology nowadays can accomplish, illustrating that the possibilities are endless.
Genetic engineering is used in a new technological finding known as gene drives. Gene drives, using genetic engineering, propagate specific genes, altering probabilities of transmission throughout the population. Utilization of gene drives could result in some species developing defense mechanisms against predators, removing traits from some organisms that are detrimental to human beings, an increase in crop tolerance to various diseases, and the list goes on. Having said this, however, there are still a significant number of disadvantages as well.
With this ability to push desired traits through virtually any population, there is no doubt that humans have the ability to modify existence. The demurral that continues to persist is whether or not this practice is humane. Gene drive technology arguably gives humans a tremendous vantage. By applying this technology in various fields, scientists have brought about large changes.
One field that has greatly benefited from gene drive technology so far is agriculture. The usage of technology in crop production and management has proven to be a reliable, non-chemical alternative for the agricultural scene. After the application of gene drives, various positive outcomes can be observed. Certain genes drive great crops' voluminous yields, impacting not only the farmers but the community as a whole. Other gene drives enable plants to resist pest attacks. As most alternatives to pest control guarantee chemical usage, which can permanently damage the crops and soil, not to mention the farmers themselves, this is an option that shows high potential for success. Another use of gene drives in agriculture is to decrease post-harvest yield loss. Since most crop yields are unable to withstand extended periods without “going bad”, it is a struggle to deliver and provide crop yields on time to desired locations, while the products remain fresh. By using genetic engineering, scientists could potentially prolong the harvests’ “shelf life," meaning they will be able to stay fresh long after harvesting. Scientists have also expressed their ability to improve the nutritional qualities of a production crop, without altering the production qualities.
Gene drive technology also plays remarkable roles regarding animals. The technology offers ways in which it could save endangered animals by ensuring the next offspring are of the opposite sex, so as to guarantee that there will be a next generation. This could quite possibly bring back a species from the brink of extinction. Scientists are also able to decrease the number of species that could possibly act as a vector (disease-carrying organisms). Again, by using genetic modification, insects or other factors are modified. Scientists remove a trait that is proven detrimental to humans. This could potentially save millions of lives, especially in places where the vectors are a persisting cause of their illnesses.
With all the possible benefits that a gene drive offers, it is quite a remarkable advancement in genetic engineering technology. For now, much of the potential of the gene drives is still highly speculative and not without risks. A gene drive not only allows you to quickly change a single creature but, potentially an entire species. This raises the question, “What would happen if a mutation occurred mid-drive?” The problem that this poses is that this mutation could allow unwanted traits to be manifested in future species. Because a gene drive causes permanent changes to a species, this might lead to an even greater problem than we initially started with. To make this idea clearer let us think of an insect that usually reproduces a lot of offspring. Using a gene drive we would be able to limit the number of offspring that could be reproduced at a time but due to an unexpected mutation, this insect now acts as a vector for some kind of incurable disease. Since changes made by gene drives are irreversible, we should be careful as to how we use it and that is why it is critical to get things right the first time.
Even assuming that a gene drive has a theoretical 100 percent efficiency rate, meaning there are no unexpected mutations, there are still many risks and outcomes that researchers need to consider before allowing a drive to be released into a species whether it is to eradicate said species or help them thrive. In an ecosystem, a particular species usually plays a role in maintaining the delicate balance between the different organisms within that ecosystem. The eradication of a species that acts as a vector for a certain disease would help suppress and eradicate the disease as a whole but it would be hard to predict what the overall outcome will be, and how other individual organisms will be impacted.
The adverse ecological impact that gene drives might cause is one of many reasons that gene drives are yet to be deployed. Another underlying problem with the deployment of gene drives is the way that people intend to use it. There are of course those who seek to use it to solve problems that humans are facing. But, on the other hand, there are those who seek to use this technology for acts of terror and personal gain. The gene drive technology could be used to insert lethal genes, like a toxin-making gene, into everyday organisms that could come into contact with people and infect them easily. Let's take a simple housefly into consideration. These houseflies are present almost everywhere. A person would only need to use a gene drive to insert a lethal gene and these flies would be able to infect a large number of people within a short period of time.
A major risk of gene drives is that it could be used in making biological weapons. Although a gene drive has great potential, there are many unknowns and risks that need to be sorted out first before it can actually be used outside of research facilities. And as such, I believe that this new technology should not be used further until all the risks associated with it have been solved even if the benefits seem tempting.
Published on 27 May 2020