What Is A Gene Drive?

By Antonia Čirjak on February 20 2020 in Environment

Gene drive is a relatively new approach to genetic engineering that could actually make that happen in the near future.
Gene drive is a relatively new approach to genetic engineering that could actually make that happen in the near future.
  • With gene drives, we now have the possibility to get rid of unwanted traits in many species that are harmful to us or the environment.
  • CRISPR caused a revolution as it has made possible for scientists to completely engineer a gene, which was impossible in the past.
  • Even though the advantages of these actions are apparent, the truth is that we still are not sure how serious are the potential negative consequences.

What if someone told you there is a way for scientists to stop mosquitoes from spreading malaria or reduce the millions of dollars of damage invasive species do to our food supplies? Gene drive is a relatively new approach to genetic engineering that could actually make that happen in the near future.

But, like most things that sound way too good to be true, it is not really that simple, and there are certain risks included, as well as ethical considerations that come with such a "power".

How Do Gene Drives Actually Work?

Imagine your best friend is having a birthday and you decide to throw him a big secret party with all of his family and friends invited. After you notify his family, you realize how time-consuming this will be since there are so many people to invite. Instead of contacting every single one of them individually, you opt for a different strategy. You will send a message to just a few selected individuals and instruct them to spread the message to a few other of their friends. When those friends send your message to other people, they will them the same thing, exponentially increasing the number of individuals invited to your friend's birthday party. Soon enough, you will end up orchestrating the biggest party he ever had. Gene drives operate in a similar way, spreading a gene through the target species, just like you spread your friend's birthday invitations.

Gene drive is actually a system that increases the chances of an organism passing certain genes on the next generation, even if those genes present a danger to the health of that organism. With the use of gene drives, scientists have the potential ability to remove the unwanted traits in insects and a variety of other potentially harmful species. It is done by removing the genetic modification of the whole species until they become something else, something that we, humans, engineered. 

The idea itself is not actually new, but it is only recently that the advance gene-editing techniques made gene drives possible. It is mainly because of the technique called "CRISPR, "which revolutionized the field of genetic modification. This technique enables scientists to engineer a gene with a high level of precision that was not available in the past. It works with specially designed molecules that run along the strand of DNA in an organism's genome, seeking out a specific sequence of genetic code. Upon finding that specific sequence of code, they can then take out the old code and replace it with a different one. Such a technique could then replace a part of the mosquitoes' genome that enables it to carry disease like malaria. 

What Gives Us The Right To Wipe Out An Entire Species?

While gene drive technology does have an ability to prevent disease spreading caused by insects like mosquitos and other invasive species, there is also the ethical question when we are encountered with such significant population reduction. Health benefits of such drastic actions are evident, but we still do not know for sure how such actions would affect the environment and the ecosystems. Since gene drive technology is a new technology, it could be really hard to predict the outcome it would have on our planet, even if it is used for the greater good.

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