It's one thing to genetically modify an organism in the lab. It's another thing entirely to spread those modifications in the wild, altering whole populations or even species. A new technology, the “CRISPR gene drive,” promises to do just that, giving human beings an unprecedented ability to fine-tune the natural world and nudge evolution in new directions. Malaria-resistant mosquitoes? Lyme-blocking ticks? Those are just a few of the applications floated so far, but the possibilities are endless. I talked to molecular biologist and “evolutionary sculptor” Kevin Esvelt, who first proposed the CRISPR gene drive, about its potential, perils and steps to ensure that we use our new powers wisely.
Topics covered include:
The CRISPR revolution: fast, cheap gene editing
Gene drives: CRISPR on auto-pilot
Using gene drives to fight disease and suppress pests
Safeguards, controls and oversight
More evo-sculpting: Kevin's PACE system, harnessing viral evolution to create novel biomolecules
Personally, I find the implications of gene drives to be fairly head-spinning. Imagine self-propagating genes that spread inexorably even when they offer no selective advantage – even when they're maladaptive! Of course, like a too-virulent pathogen, really maladaptive CRISPR drives might put themselves out of business by killing off their hosts, and selective pressures would favor mutations that incapacitate the drive, but still…