The per­ils of planned ex­tinc­tions

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

A cyn­i­cal move is un­der­way to pro­mote a new, pow­er­ful, and trou­bling tech­nol­ogy known as “gene drives” for use in con­ser­va­tion. This is not just your ev­ery­day ge­netic mod­i­fi­ca­tion, known as “GMO”; it is a rad­i­cal new tech­nol­ogy, which cre­ates “mu­ta­genic chain re­ac­tions” that can re­shape liv­ing sys­tems in unimag­in­able ways.

Gene drives rep­re­sent the next fron­tier of ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing, syn­thetic bi­ol­ogy, and gene edit­ing. The tech­nol­ogy over­rides the stan­dard rules of ge­netic in­her­i­tance, en­sur­ing that a par­tic­u­lar trait, de­liv­ered by hu­mans into an or­gan­ism’s DNA us­ing ad­vanced gene-edit­ing tech­nol­ogy, spreads to all sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions, thereby al­ter­ing the fu­ture of the en­tire species.

It is a bi­o­log­i­cal tool with un­prece­dented power. Yet, in­stead of tak­ing time to con­sider fully the rel­e­vant eth­i­cal, eco­log­i­cal, and so­cial is­sues, many are ag­gres­sively pro­mot­ing gene-drive tech­nol­ogy for use in con­ser­va­tion.

One pro­posal aims to pro­tect na­tive birds on Hawaii’s Kauai Is­land by us­ing gene drives to re­duce the pop­u­la­tion of a species of mos­quito that car­ries avian malaria. An­other plan, cham­pi­oned by a con­ser­va­tion con­sor­tium that in­cludes US and Aus­tralian govern­ment agen­cies, would erad­i­cate in­va­sive, bird-harm­ing mice on par­tic­u­lar is­lands by in­tro­duc­ing al­tered mice that pre­vent them from pro­duc­ing fe­male off­spring. Cre­at­ing the “daugh­ter­less mouse” would be the first step to­ward so-called Ge­netic Bio­con­trol of In­va­sive Ro­dents (GBIRd), de­signed to cause de­lib­er­ate ex­tinc­tions of “pest” species like rats, in or­der to save “favoured” species, such as en­dan­gered birds.

The as­sump­tion un­der­ly­ing these pro­pos­als seems to be that hu­mans have the knowl­edge, ca­pa­bil­i­ties, and pru­dence to con­trol na­ture. The idea that we can – and should – use hu­man-driven ex­tinc­tion to ad­dress hu­man-caused ex­tinc­tion is ap­palling.

I am not alone in my con­cern. At the on­go­ing In­ter­na­tional Union for the Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture (IUCN) World Con­ser­va­tion Con­gress in Hawaii, a group of lead­ing con­ser­va­tion­ists and sci­en­tists is­sued an open let­ter, en­ti­tled “A Call for Con­ser­va­tion with a Con­science,” de­mand­ing a halt to the use of gene drives in con­ser­va­tion. I am one of the sig­na­to­ries, along with the en­vi­ron­men­tal icon David Suzuki, physi­cist Fritjof Capra, the In­dige­nous En­vi­ron­men­tal Net­work’s Tom Gold­tooth, and or­ganic pi­o­neer Nell New­man.

The dis­cus­sions that have be­gun at the IUCN con­gress will con­tinue at the United Na­tions Con­ven­tion on Bi­o­log­i­cal Di­ver­sity in Mex­ico this De­cem­ber, when global lead­ers must con­sider a pro­posed global mora­to­rium on gene drives. Such dis­cus­sions re­flect de­mands by civil-so­ci­ety lead­ers for a more thor­ough con­sid­er­a­tion of the sci­en­tific, moral, and le­gal is­sues con­cern­ing the use of gene drives.

As I see it, we are sim­ply not ask­ing the right ques­tions. Our tech­no­log­i­cal prow­ess is largely viewed through the lens of en­gi­neer­ing, and engi­neers tend to fo­cus on one ques­tion: “Does it work?” But, as An­ge­lika Hil­beck, Pres­i­dent of the Euro­pean Net­work of Sci­en­tists for So­cial and En­vi­ron­men­tal Re­spon­si­bil­ity (ENSSER) ar­gues, a bet­ter ques­tion would be: “What else does it do?”

When it comes to the GBIRd project, for ex­am­ple, one might ask whether the “daugh­ter­less mouse” could es­cape the spe­cific ecosys­tem into which it has been in­tro­duced, just as GMO crops and farmed sal­mon do, and what would hap­pen if it did. As for the mos­qui­toes in Hawaii, one might ask how re­duc­ing their num­bers would af­fect the en­dan­gered hoary bat species.

En­sur­ing that these kinds of ques­tions are taken into ac­count will be no easy feat. As a lawyer ex­pe­ri­enced in US govern­ment reg­u­la­tions, I can con­fi­dently say that the ex­ist­ing reg­u­la­tory frame­work is ut­terly in­ca­pable of as­sess­ing and gov­ern­ing genedrive tech­nol­ogy.

Mak­ing mat­ters worse, the me­dia have con­sis­tently failed to ed­u­cate the pub­lic about the risks raised by ge­netic tech­nolo­gies. Few peo­ple un­der­stand that, as MIT sci­ence his­to­rian Lily Kay ex­plains, ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing was de­lib­er­ately de­vel­oped and pro­moted as a tool for bi­o­log­i­cal and so­cial con­trol. Those driv­ing that process were aim­ing to ful­fill a per­ceived man­date for “sci­ence-based so­cial in­ter­ven­tion.”

Pow­er­ful tools like ge­netic mod­i­fi­ca­tion and, es­pe­cially, gene-drive tech­nol­ogy spark the imag­i­na­tion of any­one with an agenda, from the mil­i­tary (which could use them to make game-chang­ing bio-weapons) to wellinten­tioned health ad­vo­cates (which could use them to help erad­i­cate cer­tain deadly dis­eases). They cer­tainly ap­peal to the hero nar­ra­tive that so many of my fel­low en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists favour.

But the fact is that we have not cre­ated the in­tel­lec­tual in­fra­struc­ture to ad­dress the fun­da­men­tal chal­lenges that gene drives – not to men­tion other pow­er­ful tech­nolo­gies – raise. And now we are sup­posed to sus­pend our crit­i­cal fac­ul­ties and trust the tech­noelites’ prom­ise to use gene drives re­spon­si­bly in the ser­vice of seem­ingly pos­i­tive en­vi­ron­men­tal goals. No open pub­lic dis­cus­sion is needed, ap­par­ently. But why should we blindly be­lieve that ev­ery­thing is un­der con­trol?

In my view, the fo­cus on us­ing gene-drive tech­nol­ogy for con­ser­va­tion is a ruse to gain pub­lic ac­cep­tance and reg­u­la­tory cover. Why ex­pose some­thing to pub­lic scru­tiny and pos­si­ble re­straints when you can usher it in through the back door by pre­tend­ing it will do some good? The risks are too ob­vi­ous for gene-drive ad­vo­cates to risk talk­ing about them.

In my 20-plus years of re­search­ing and re­port­ing on trans­genic tech­nolo­gies, I thought I had seen the worst of the false prom­ises and hype that they en­gen­der. But gene drives are un­like any­thing we have wit­nessed, and amount to the ul­ti­mate test of our self-con­trol. Can we re­ally trust sci­ence to guide us, or do we reck­lessly throw in our lot with tech­no­log­i­cal “sil­ver bul­lets” as the way for­ward?

For­tu­nately, we still have a choice. The fact that gene drives can change the ba­sic re­la­tion­ship be­tween hu­man­ity and the nat­u­ral world is both a chal­lenge and an op­por­tu­nity. We can do now what we should have done a long time ago, with re­gard to both nu­clear and trans­genic tech­nolo­gies: start pay­ing more at­ten­tion to the dan­gers of hu­man in­ge­nu­ity – and more re­spect to the ge­nius of na­ture.

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