By Ben Hirschler
LONDON (Reuters) - Rodents have joined mosquitoes in the cross-hairs of scientists working on a next-generation genetic technology known as “gene drive” to control pests.
Researchers in Scotland said on Tuesday they had developed two different ways to disrupt female fertility in rats and mice, building on a similar approach that has already been tested in the lab to eliminate malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
So-called gene drives push engineered genes through multiple generations by over-riding normal biological processes, so that all offspring carry two copies. Usually, animals would receive one copy of a gene from the mother and one from the father.
The technique is extremely powerful but also controversial, since such genetically engineered organisms could have an irreversible impact on the ecosystem.
Concerns about the proliferation of mutant species have led some to call for a gene drive ban, but Bruce Whitelaw of the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute believes that would be short sighted.
“A moratorium would prevent the research which is required for us to understand if and how this can be used in an advantageous way for our society,” he told reporters in London.
“We need to have an understanding of what gene drive can do and how it can be controlled so that decisions are based on knowledge rather than fear.”
A key appeal of a gene drive is its durable effect on pests, whether they are disease-carrying insects or crop-eating rodents. And since relatively small numbers of animals would need to be released initially, it is likely to be quite cheap.
It also offers a humane way to eliminate unwanted populations of sentient mammals like rats, which are typically killed with poison and traps.
Still, researchers agree more work is needed on the risks and potential unintended consequences of release of such animals
Whitelaw and his colleagues, who published details of their rodent work in the journal Trends in Biotechnology, hope as a next step to build self-limiting gene drives that would burn out after a certain number of generations.
If their approach is successful, the gene drives could potentially be applied to help control a range of other non-insect pest species, such as rabbits, mink and cane toads.
Currently, an older approach called “sterile insect technology” is being used in some areas to fight mosquitoes. Intrexon’s Oxitec unit has already deployed its sterile male mosquitoes, whose offspring die when young, in Brazil.
But because Oxitec’s mosquitoes last only one generation, a vast number must be released to swamp their wild counterparts.
Existing approaches to fighting pests, particularly mosquitoes, have so far shown mixed success, with insecticide resistance increasing in many parts of the world and drugmakers struggling to develop good vaccines against complex diseases such as dengue.
Reporting by Ben Hirschler; Editing by Mark Potter
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WASHINGTON, D.C. —Over 1,200 emails released under open records requests reveal that the U.S. military is now the top funder and influencer behind a controversial genetic extinction technology known as “gene drives” – having pumped $100 million into the field. The trove of emails, additionally sheds light on a $1.6 million dollar lobbying operation paid for by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
“Emerging Ag,” a private PR firm funded by the Gates Foundation, is working behind the scenes to stack key UN advisory processes with gene drive-friendly scientists, and has recruited ostensibly independent academics and public officials into a private collaboration to counteract possible regulation, including an effort to resist calls for an international moratorium. Some of those recruited entered into the UN discussions without divulging their conflicts of interest or the role that paid political consultants played in shaping their inputs.
The files cast a spotlight on the central role of the shadowy US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as the key funder now accelerating gene drive development. For example, DARPA is now revealed as the major financial backer of efforts to develop gene drive mammals (mice) that are led by a US environmental NGO, although DARPA has no biodiversity conservation mission, raising questions about the defense agency’s intent.
“Gene drives are a powerful and dangerous new technology and potential biological weapons could have disastrous impacts on peace, food security and the environment, especially if misused,” said Jim Thomas of ETC Group. “The fact that gene drive development is now being primarily funded and structured by the US military raises alarming questions about this entire field.”
“There is no transparency about who is influencing decisions about the future of global ecosystems, people’s livelihoods, or our food system,” said Dana Perls of Friends of the Earth, U.S. “Gene drives could have profound ecological, health and socio-economic impacts, and the emails reveal a secretive attempt to game the system by gene drive proponents aiming to minimize regulations and oversight.”
“In response to this news that the integrity of technical processes under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) may have been compromised by Gates-funded political consultants, civil society groups will urgently raise the need for better disclosure of interests within a framework for addressing conflict of interest at the CBD,” said Lim Li Ching of Third World Network.
"Mosquitoes containing gene drives are being proposed for malaria control in Africa.. While claiming potential health benefits, any application of such powerful technologies should be subject to the highest standards of transparency and disclosure. Sadly, this doesn’t appear to be the case. Releasing risky GM organisms into the environments of these African countries is outrageous and deeply worrying,” said Mariam Mayet, Executive Director of The African Centre for Biodiversity.
Information revealed in the Gene Drive files includes:
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is reported to have given approximately $100 million for gene drive research, $35 million more than previously reported. If confirmed, DARPA appears to be the largest single funder of gene drive research on the planet.
Emerging Ag, a privately-held public relations firm, received over $1.6 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to work on gene drive topics and to focus on exerting influence on the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the key body for gene drive governance. Following calls in 2016 for a global moratorium on the use of gene drive technology, the CBD sought input from scientists and experts in an online forum. According to the Gene Drive Files, Emerging Ag recruited and coordinated over 65 experts, including a Gates Foundation senior official, a DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) official, and government and university scientists, in an undercover attempt to flood he official UN process with their coordinated inputs.
The attempt to covertly influence the UN process online centrally involved three members of an associated UN expert committee (The Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Synthetic Biology): Dr Robert Friedman of the J Craig Venter Institute, Dr. Todd Kuiken of North Carolina State University and Professor Paul Freemont of Imperial College London. Two of these are from institutions that together received over $100 million in U.S. military and other funds expressly to develop and test gene drive systems. Dr Kuiken served as “stakeholder engagement” lead for a Gene Drive development project. The Expert committee meets this week in Montreal, Canada.
The secretive JASON group of military advisors have undertaken two classified studies on genome editing and gene drives at the request of the U.S. government. The gene drive study, which included input by a Monsanto executive, focuses on hostile use of gene drives and use of gene drives in agriculture.
DARPA is revealed to be funding a high profile UK team of researchers targeting African communities with gene drive mosquitos. This funding was not previously made public.
The files reveal how far along the two leading gene drive teams (Target Malaria for the UK and GBIRD, based in North Carolina) have proceeded towards building gene drive organisms and are preparing for open field trials, including steps to select test sites in Australia, New Zealand, Burkina Faso, Uganda, Mali and Ghana, and to create government and community acceptance of the use of gene drives in key testing sites.
About the Records
The Gene Drive Files may be accessed at: https://genedrivefiles.syn biowatch.org
The Gene Drive Files consist of records recently released in response to U.S. and Canadian open records requests. The bulk of the files are from North Carolina State University, and were released on 27 October 2017 under a request by Edward Hammond/Third World Network. The files also include records from Texas A&M University, also requested by Edward Hammond/Third World Network and released on 21 August 2017 (Request TAMU R001428). Additional records from an Access to Information request filed in Canada by ETC Group are also included at the same site..
Please take note of the information provided (readme file) on proper citation of the records.
Background on Gene Drives: