The big biotech controversy of last year was over the ethics of using CRISPR to edit human embryos – something which a team of Chinese scientists did last April. The possibility of designer babies led to a major scientific summit meeting, hosted by the National Academy of Sciences, during which the attendees concluded that “It would be irresponsible to proceed with any clinical use of germline editing” until safety concerns are allayed and society comes closer to an ethical consensus.
While the world was fretting about edited embryos, scientists introduced an even more ethically fraught biotechnology: gene drives, a tool to genetically modify organisms in the wild. Gene drives have the potential to do a lot of good, by controlling disease vectors like malaria-bearing mosquitos. But if you thought GMO crops were controversial, just wait to see how people react to GMO wild organisms.
I cover the new CRISPR-based gene drive technologies in my latest Pacific Standard column. Here’s the tl;dr version: Gene drives can do a lot of good, but because they are simple to make, and because their consequences aren’t confined by political borders, we’re going to have a hell of a time ensuring they’re used responsibly.