Gene Drives Explained

Gene drives are used to bypass the rules of inheritance in order to accelerate the spread of modified genes across wild populations. While normal genes have a 50% chance of being passed on to the next generation, gene drive elements change the odds dramatically in their favour. Gene drives can be used to manipulate or even extinguish wild populations or species.

The idea to not only change but also eradicate species via genetic modification has existed for a long time. The technical means to do so have only just become available. With new genetic engineering techniques, in particular the “molecular scissors” provided by CRISPR/Cas9, it may soon become possible to pass a particular gene on to all descendants in the next generation.

The scientific breakthrough needed for a gene drive came in 2015 using the model organism Drosophila and the inheritance of eye colour. The scientists were so euphoric about their ability to ensure the spread of the chosen gene to future generations of flies that they called their technique a “Mutagenic Chain Reaction”. The ability to “produce” not only properties such as eye colour, but also female (or male) sterility, and to propagate these properties into whole populations or species, offers researchers the hope of using this technique to stop the spread of unwanted or problematic species or to eradicate them altogether.

Which path do we want to take as a society?

The current or planned research projects are diverse. They target the eradication or modification of disease vectors such as mosquitoes for malaria and dengue fever, and the elimination of harmful invasive species or agricultural pests.

But what happens when populations or species are wiped out by gene drives? In addition to ecological concerns, gene drives are a technology that also raises fundamental social, ethical and legal questions.

Many scientists and research groups warn about the far-reaching consequences of using gene drives and demand that a broad public and political debate should precede any release.

Our contribution to the debate

To help stimulate this debate, we are providing news about gene drives on this website. We are also organising a public and interdisciplinary symposium, which should enable a scientifically sound and critical examination of many of the scientific and social questions relevant to gene drives.