The dynamic field of research into gene editing provides an opportunity to rewrite the rules of science, says Kevin Esvelt. The emergence of gene-drive systems — which spread engineered mutations quickly through populations — means that a single released organism could eventually alter most of its local population, and quite possibly all populations of the species throughout the world. Any accidental release, even if there was no ecological damage, would surely damage public trust and prompt harsh restrictions on research.
The US National Academy of Sciences in the released guidelines this week for the responsible conduct of gene-drive research. The report comes almost two years after the first published description of how the CRISPR-Cas9 genome-editing technology could enable gene drives in many different organisms (see our Report HERE). In that time, scientists have demonstrated CRISPR-based systems gene-drive systems in four species. The report makes some sensible suggestions, such as phased testing and ecological-risk assessments, but if we’re going to develop proper safeguards for gene drives or other powerful technologies, we need to fix a greater problem: the closed-door nature of science. Since the consequences of mistakes involving gene-drive organisms could affect communities outside the laboratory, scientists have an obligation to openly share their plans, invite suggestions and concerns, disclose experimental results as soon as possible, and redesign the technology as needed. Applied to gene drives, such an approach will also have greater chance of earning popular support for applications that could save millions of human lives and rescue numerous species from extinction. We should ensure that gene-drive research is open and responsive — then drive those changes through the scientific ecosystem (Excerpt from Gene editing can drive science to openness in Nature, Vol 534, 9 June 2016).