Genetically Engineering Almost Anything

Yours truly and Eleanor Nelsen, reporting for NOVA Next:

With gene drives—so named because they drive a gene through a population—researchers just have to slip a new gene into a drive system and let nature take care of the rest. Subsequent generations of whatever species we choose to modify—frogs, weeds, mosquitoes—will have more and more individuals with that gene until, eventually, it’s everywhere.

Cas9-based gene drives could be one of the most powerful technologies ever discovered by humankind. “This is one of the most exciting confluences of different theoretical approaches in science I’ve ever seen,” says Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University. “It merges population genetics, genetic engineering, molecular genetics, into an unbelievably powerful tool.”

Our ability to genetically modify organisms has largely been restricted to those under our close care—crops, for example. But this could bring genetic engineering to nearly anything, and gene drives could make it relatively simple to push a trait throughout a population without having to engineer millions or billions of individuals. (This all presumes the species being modified has a relatively short generation time. Insects and weeds are prime candidates.)

The first candidate being considered are malaria-carrying mosquitoes, but the real potential here will be engineering entire ecosystems. I think this could be one of the biggest scientific discoveries of the century.

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