Meet the Moralist Policing Gene Drives, a Technology That Messes with Evolution

To avoid missteps with a powerful genetic engineering technology that can modify species, one scientist demands total transparency.

By Antonio Regalado

June 7, 2016

Original Article Published on MIT Technology Reviews

An MIT Media Lab scientist is challenging scientists working on gene drives, a genetic technology that could permanently alter, or even eradicate, entire species, to make their plans completely public before they do further experiments on mosquitoes or other organisms.

Kevin Esvelt, a 33-year-old professor at MIT’s Media Lab, says the change is necessary to allow public scrutiny and avoid accidents that, because of how the technology works, could have global consequences. “Do you really have the right to run an experiment where if you screw up, it affects the whole world?” he asks.

On Wednesday, the public will get a close look at the debate around gene drives when the National Academy of Sciences, in Washington, D.C., releases a thick report recommending how to reduce ecological risks and prevent accidents, and outlining the extent to which existing laws can or can’t cope with a technology able to spread across national borders.

Whatever the report says, it’s going to owe a big debt to Esvelt, who more than two years ago was first to realize that a gene-editing technology called CRISPR would enable scientists to effectively engineer the DNA of wild species, like mosquitoes, flies, or rats, for the first time.

But instead of rushing to score a quick technical first, Esvelt began challenging agencies and colleagues to think about how we should police such a powerful technology.