CUT THROUGH

Idealog - - IDEALOG / KIWIBANK -

Although not usual bed­fel­lows, the worlds of ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing and con­ser­va­tion have linked arms in ex­cite­ment over the pos­si­bil­i­ties of gene edit­ing – and New Zealand’s not stand­ing on the side­line. The buzz is largely over gene drives, self-per­pet­u­at­ing ge­netic ma­chines that are al­most 100 per­cent hered­i­tary. These gene drives could com­pletely al­ter the ge­net­ics of an en­tire species – think breed­ing a gene into rats to make them in­fer­tile.

In 2016 Kevin Esvelt, a ge­neti­cist at Har­vard Univer­sity, sug­gested the CRISPR gene edit­ing tech­nique – it can cut, edit and paste DNA into any genome. The idea is to cre­ate a gene drive, es­sen­tially giv­ing peo­ple the abil­ity to change species and ecosys­tems. Esvelt be­came wary of what he’d cre­ated very quickly, and has warned of the po­ten­tial im­pli­ca­tions of rush­ing into the field and spread­ing gene drives that could, say, de­lay the dis­cov­ery of a gene drive to pre­vent malaria.

De­spite this, in­vest­ment and ex­cite­ment surrounds the field and Esvelt has said he sup­ports con­tin­u­ing work in con­ser­va­tion, pro­vided it’s done in a care­ful and pub­licly open way.

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