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.