Weighing the benefits and costs of gene-modifying technology

James Collins

James Collins, a senior sustainability scientist and evolutionary ecologist at ASU, leads an interdisciplinary team of researchers studying the role of host-pathogen interactions in species decline and extinction.  Through a paper published in the journal Science, the team aims to initiate a conversation about the scientific, ethical and regulatory issues that could arise from the use of a genetic engineering technology called gene drives.

Using a new genome-editing tool, scientists can, in principle, accurately insert, replace, delete or regulate genes in many different bisexual species. The technology could be used to eliminate insect-borne diseases like malaria, eradicate invasive species and reverse pesticide and herbicide resistance. Nonetheless, there are concerns regarding unexpected and possibly harmful side effects.

Collins' paper proposes instituting safety measures to control these possible effects. It suggests that gene drives be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the trait, species and ecosystem in question. Controlled testing in laboratories located in areas where target species can’t survive and reproduce, or development of an alteration-reversing version for every single gene drive are additional examples of precautionary actions.