By Kevin M. Esvelt
Gene drive and other methods of editing the genomes of wild organisms could save millions of lives and prevent billions of animals from suffering each year. But advances that are intended to alter the shared environment must be developed and used wisely, if at all. For the foreseeable future, that means by nonprofits.
Gene drive is a ubiquitous natural phenomenon in which genetic elements are inherited more often than usual, allowing them to quickly spread through wild populations even if they don’t help organisms reproduce. Engineered gene drives use modern genome editing tools such as CRISPR to duplicate this effect. Unlike a normal edit, gene drive systems could lastingly alter or suppress local or global populations of a target species, potentially eradicating insect-borne diseases, healing damaged ecosystems, and preventing animal suffering.
As one of those who introduced CRISPR-based gene drive to the world, I hold myself morally responsible for any and all consequences that emerge from the technology. In my eyes, if something goes wrong that I might have foreseen, that’s on me. If my actions or words inadvertently prevent gene drive from benefiting others, that’s on me. If my failure to act prevents it from saving lives, that’s on me.