Updated: Aug 4, 2021
Author: Suhani Patel
Editor: Kira Tian and Megan Liu
Artist: Tiffany Chen
The balance of our ecosystem has been and still is being threatened by many factors such as invasive species and extinction. However, technology such as the gene drive has been proven to effectively maintain this balance. Read this article to learn about how we can use advanced technology to save our ecosystem.
Genome engineering technologies have significantly advanced the fields of genetics and biotechnology. They are incredibly important when it comes to saving entire wild populations and ecosystems. While conservationists have succeeded in restoring some species like the southern white rhino and American bison, the average risk of extinction for birds, mammals, amphibians, and corals shows no sign of decreasing.
But what if it was possible to protect our planet’s biodiversity by rewriting the genetic code of plants and animals? Researchers around the world are considering ways to employ genetic engineering for conservation purposes. The idea started in 2012 with CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats). This molecular tool could be used to make targeted and precise changes to the DNA of plants, animals, and microbes. Using the gene editing technology developed with CRISPR, scientists have been able to use technologies such as gene drives. Gene drives are tiny snippets of DNA that have been tweaked by scientists to change the way that certain genes and traits are inherited. Typically, a gene has a 50% chance of being passed from a parent to an offspring, but gene drives increase that probability to 95%.
Gene drives can directly benefit biodiversity by controlling populations of environmentally damaging invasive species such as rats, cane toads, or lionfish. Unlike most current chemical or biocontrol methods, gene drives target specific species and eradicate invasive populations. An example of this “ecosystem intervention” is using gene drives to control malaria by altering the genes in Anopheles mosquitoes which transmit the disease. Anti-malarial medicines and insecticides are losing effectiveness due to evolving resistance, and a vaccine remains out of reach despite intense research and investment. On the other hand, gene drives can spread genes conferring malaria resistance through the mosquito populations with very few, if any, effects on other species. Moreover, they can reduce or even eliminate the mosquitoes for long enough to eradicate the malaria parasites permanently.
The ability to manage ecosystems by altering wild populations will have profound implications between humans and nature. Selective breeding and genome engineering have, in many ways, defined agriculture, human lives, and medicine. But at the same time, they also have had comparatively little impact on most ecosystems due to domesticated crops and animals’ inability to survive in the wild. With CRISPR gene drives, we may be able to directly alter the traits of or influence the population size of many non-domesticated species that constitute the majority of key players in ecosystems worldwide. Given the importance of ecosystem integrity, vitality to human flourishing, and the balance of life on our planet, the availability of these techniques will come with tremendous responsibility. The decision of how we can apply CRISPR gene drives will be in our collective hands which can help save our planet.
Esvelt, K. (2014, July 17). "Gene Drives" And CRISPR Could Revolutionize Ecosystem
Management. Scientific American Blog Network.
Moore, A. (2019, June 24). Can Genetic Engineering Save Our Planet's Biodiversity? College of
Natural Resources News.
Can the gene editing technology known as CRISPR help reduce biodiversity loss worldwide? Ensia.
Goldman, J. G. (2016, September 14). Harnessing the Power of Gene Drives to Save Wildlife. Scientific American.