The UN Convention on Biological Diversity has been taking place (through December 17) in Cancun, Mexico, and one of the hottest topics on the docket was also one of the most controversial: the proposed use of the new “gene drive” technology.
The event featured representatives from over 90 countries meeting to discuss how to regulate this new type of genetic engineering, among other topics, as well as representatives from organizations concerned about the implications it may have on the health of ecosystems, humans, animal and plant species, and more.
Among them was researcher Jeffrey M. Smith of the Institute for Responsible Technology, and he offered his own summary of the concerns with what’s being dubbed as a potential “gene extinction” caliber technology in the video below.
Concerns Voiced About New Type of GMOs
While the initial type of genetic engineering (used in seed production and designed to allow Monsanto and other companies’ crops to withstand large sprayings of synthetic pesticides) has been around for over two decades, gene editing technology is just now entering the public consciousness.
Dubbed CRISPR, the technology allows for “DNA cutting” that has sped up the genetic engineering process. It was used in a new “gene-edited, non-browning mushroom” that has escaped safety regulation from the USDA.
In December 2015, scientists across the world called for a moratorium on a similar technology — gene drives — which are related to CRISPR gene-editing techniques. They have, however, continued to support research on the technology as long as it is controlled and does not affect future generations.
The techniques are powerful — so much so that The Washington Post ran an article titled ‘This new gene technology could wipe out entire species — to save others,’ and now anti-GMO organizations and activist groups are showing deep concern about a lack of safety regulations and the near-certain potential misuse of the technology. They’re also debating what future uses of these technologies should be allowed.
As noted in the Post article, gene drives are stretches of DNA passed on to offspring more frequently than regular genes, which ultimately allow them to exhibit new, unnatural traits. Pro-gene drive researchers want to eventually release certain gene-edited animals into the wild in order to combat invasive species or help stamp out diseases such as malaria in mosquitoes, among other possible uses.
In theory, it sounds like an potentially useful idea — but concern remains due to the highly unpredictable nature of unleashing such a powerful technology into unpredictable and diverse ecosystems.
At the 2016 conference, Smith and fellow research Jim Thomas shared the following concerns about gene drive technology:
-Entire species could be wiped out, Thomas says, because offspring from gene-drive affected parents may lose their natural traits over time
-More corporate control over nature could be exerted, Smith says; “it’s a brilliant marketing strategy where you lock in biology” similar to what Monsanto has done with GMOs
-Entire ecosystems may be changed significantly by introducing new species or removing others
-Thomas considers the technology “playing with evolution,” and one whose consequences are mostly unknown
For more information, check out the full video from Smith and Thomas by clicking on the picture below.