When Evolution Fights Back Against Genetic Engineering

Sep 14, 2016

By Brooke Borel

In a crowded auditorium at New York’s Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in August, Philipp Messer, a population geneticist at Cornell University, took the stage to discuss a powerful and controversial new application for genetic engineering: gene drives.

Gene drives can force a trait through a population, defying the usual rules of inheritance. A specific trait ordinarily has a 50-50 chance of being passed along to the next generation. A gene drive could push that rate to nearly 100 percent. The genetic dominance would then continue in all future generations. You want all the fruit flies in your lab to have light eyes? Engineer a drive for eye color, and soon enough, the fruit flies’ offspring will have light eyes, as will their offspring, and so on for all future generations. Gene drives may work in any species that reproduces sexually, and they have the potential to revolutionize disease control, agriculture, conservation and more. Scientists might be able to stop mosquitoes from spreading malaria, for example, or eradicate an invasive species.

The technology represents the first time in history that humans have the ability to engineer the genes of a wild population. As such, it raises intense ethical and practical concerns, not only from critics but from the very scientists who are working with it.


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2 comments on “When Evolution Fights Back Against Genetic Engineering

  • @OP – Gene drives can force a trait through a population, defying the usual rules of inheritance. A specific trait ordinarily has a 50-50 chance of being passed along to the next generation.

    So the replaced genetic material would be lost or at best retained in a tiny percentage minority of the future populations.

    As such, it raises intense ethical and practical concerns, not only from critics but from the very scientists who are working with it.

    Extinction of the previous stains would have potential for serious errors and serious genetic losses of diversity, even if some undesirable features were removed or fancied ones created!



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