CRISPR’s Gene Drive Could Revive Extinct Species–or Create New Ones | Jennifer Doudna


Gene drives are ways that a gene editor can
be used to spread a genetic trait through a population quickly, and a research lab in
California was recently able to use this kind of strategy to spread a trait through a population
of fruit flies in a laboratory setting very quickly. And I think what amazed many people—many
scientists—was how efficient this was at creating effectively a new strain of fruit
flies that had a different genetic trait in every individual. I think that this potential to use that kind
of spreading of a genetic trait is both exciting in terms of controlling vectors that can spread
disease, but it also makes a lot of people nervous because of the potential to spread
a trait that might become something that would be deleterious somehow in the environment. So for example, imagine that it were possible
to spread a trait that wiped out mosquitoes or created a population of insects that were
somehow damaging in the environment. I think that those are applications of this
technology that are very important to discuss and to think about before we sort of forge
ahead and release animals like that into the environment. So for people that have seen Jurassic Park
(or if you have kids like me you’ve seen it many times) it’s sort of a really interesting
idea, sort of this was Michael Crichton’s idea in the book and in the movie, to think
about being able to take bits and pieces of DNA that come from extinct animals and somehow
piece them back together perhaps using sequences of DNA from existing animals to create genomes
that would allow once-extinct animals to be alive again—and could that really be done? And I think that the CRISPR technology offers
scientists a tool now where, at least in principle, maybe not to the level that it was in the
film Jurassic Park, but in principle could allow introduction of new genes into existing
genomes that would recreate animals that have traits that have been lost by extinction. And so a number of scientists have been thinking
about this. I think George Church is one of the prominent
scientists who’s been discussing this in the context of de-extinction of woolly mammoths,
could you actually take DNA that’s been sequenced from the remains of woolly mammoths and use
elephant DNA to recreate these animals somehow? And it’s sort of a fascinating idea. Now whether that would actually work—I think
there’s a lot of technical challenges to doing that experiment, but could we do things like
bringing back the carrier pigeon or animals that might have gone extinct very recently
where we have close genetic relatives that we could actually study? To me it’s an interesting idea because of
the potential for understanding genetic networks and what genes are really doing, how they
really give rise to certain traits. I think one thing to appreciate is that in
most cases the traits that we observe in animals or in ourselves are coming from interactions
of many, many genes. It’s not just one gene that gives rise to
somebody’s height or intelligence or anything else, it’s really a whole network of genes
that are interacting. And to start to understand that I think would
be very exciting and potentially could be done using this kind of strategy of introducing
genes from extinct animals back into existing animals. And it’s hard to say how soon that will be
a reality, but I think the potential to learn a lot about the genetics of living systems
is exciting. I think with any new technology people get
excited and they see opportunities not only for doing research in the case of this kind
of science, but also for commercial use and to make a profit. And in the case of gene drive this is a tool
that could really enable the creation of organisms that might be commercially valuable, and yet
one could also say well there needs to be close supervision of that, close regulation
of release of animals or organisms like that that are engineered in such a fashion. And I think with any new technology one always
has to try to get the balance right. On the one hand we of course want to see technologies
and science in general being used to solve real world problems, real human problems. But on the other hand we want to ensure that
progress is responsible progress, that we are working together with the stakeholders
to ensure that there’s not an unintended or even a negative intended consequence of the
use of these technologies. How to do that is a big challenge.

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