Gene drives are molecular mechanisms that accelerate the spread of a genetic trait within a species. New technologies of so-called genome editing such as CRISPR-Cas9, which allow particularly precise and efficient interventions in the genome, are currently enabling the biotechnological development and use of gene drives for the first time. The goal is to quickly spread genetic modifications in the wild and thus influence the gene pool of populations. Since gene drives also allow the spread of traits that lead to reduced fertility, the technology can as well be used to decimate populations – theoretically even to the point of eradicating entire species.
Because of their rapid succession of generations, it is currently mainly insects in which interventions with gene drive technologies are being studied. Several projects aim to control insects that cause health or agricultural damage. For example, gene drives are used to manage populations of mosquitoes that transmit diseases such as malaria. Both the radical possibility of regionally (or even globally) eradicating the mosquito species that transmits the malaria pathogen, and genetic modifications that stop the spread of the pathogen in mosquitoes and thus ultimately prevent its transmission to humans are being investigated.
However, the opportunities associated with the use of gene drive technologies come with ecological risks that are difficult to assess, as well as with legal and ethical concerns. The Ethics Council therefore discusses questions such as the following:
- What safety mechanisms are required to ensure that the release of organisms modified by means of gene drives does not have any harmful effects on humans and the environment?
- Should gene drive trials be carried out on the basis of national regulations alone, or are international agreements needed because of transnational effects?
- Does the fight against hunger and infectious diseases justify the systematic eradication of entire species?