U.S. National Academy of Science’s Report on Gene Drive Research

The United States National Academy of Sciences published a report entitled Gene Drives on the Horizon: Advancing Science, Navigating Uncertainty, and Aligning Research with Public Values recently.  The report was written by the Committee on Gene Drive Research in Non-Human Organisms: Recommendation for Responsible Conduct.

The stated purpose of the Committee was to “summarize the scientific discoveries related to gene-drives and considerations for their responsible use.” (quoted from the report)

In this 200+ page document the Committee tried to “(1) review the state of the science and approaches to reduce unintended harms that could potentially result from developing and using gene-drive modified organisms; (2) discuss the ethical, legal, and social considerations attendant to field release of gene-drives; and (3) determine the adequacy of existing governance mechanisms and risk assessment guidelines for the environmental and public health implications of using gene drives” (quoted from the report)

One of the notable aspects of the report is its comprehensive nature. In 9 chapters the authors introduce the concept of gene drive and its potential uses, lay out the state of knowledge of the science, introduce seven case studies in which gene drives are being considered or might be considered, examine human values in relation to gene drives, discuss phased testing of gene-drive systems, examine the assessment of risks of gene-drive modified organisms, discuss community engagement, consider the governance of gene-drive research and, finally, ending with some overarching considerations.

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Insects and mosquitoes figure prominently in the discussion of gene drive systems and their use to combat costly and/or deadly threats

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Mus musculus, a threat to island biodiversity in some places. see https://research.ncsu.edu/islandmice/ for more on this issue. (image from public domain)

The use of case studies was particularly useful for a number of reasons. Among the seven case studies presented there were examples from public health, ecosystem conservation, agriculture and basic research, demonstrating the breadth of applications. In addition, the organisms considered were not limited to insects. For example, Case study #4 discussed gene drive in the context of controlling populations of non-indigenous mice (Mus musculus) to protect island biodiversity. Case study #5 considered the use of gene drive for the purposes of controlling non-indigenous knapweeds (Centaurea maculosa) to protect biodiversity in range lands and forests. Case study #6 focused on Palmer amaranth (Amaranthus palmeri) control for the purposes of increasing agriculture productivity (mainly cotton and soy beans in the U.S.).

Centaurea maculosa, spotted knapweed. Image credit: Matt Lavin

In addition to illustrating how broadly gene drive technology might be applied and for various purposes, the case studies also provided a framework for addressing issues raised in other chapters, such as phased testing and so on.

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Palmer amaranth (Amaranthus palmeri)

Beyond the information and valuable context the report provides, it also contains recommendations. Each of the chapters on phased testing, risk assessment, community engagement and research governance ended with a list of recommendations.

A notable conclusion of the committee is that the research community is not ready for any type of release of organisms containing a gene drive without more research on environmental risks, among other things.  Clearly the laboratory research has outpaced all other concerns associated with this technology.

This is an interesting report that could serve as a useful starting point for regulators and policy makers who need to begin to understand the science, and for scientists who need to begin to understand the policy, regulatory and governance issues associated with gene drives.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Gene Drives on the Horizon: Advancing Science, Navigating Uncertainty, and Aligning Research with Public Values. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2016. doi:10.17226/23405.

 

Related Technology Topic Posts:

Brake System for Gene Drive

Insect Gene Drives – Reviewed and Compared

Gene Editing in an Invasive Species

An Overview of Gene Drive

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