Gene drives: the experiment goes social

harvard-mag-pete-ryanChoose a word to fill the gap in the sentence. “Gene drives are an ambitious experiment in …”. Genetics? Ecology? Evolution? Obviously, gene drives are all this and more. They may also represent a significant social experiment in risk communication, public engagement, participatory processes. Potential applications of this technology include controlling the transmission of vector-borne diseases and eliminating invasive species from sensitive ecosystems. We do not yet know if these genetic elements, designed to foster the preferential inheritance of a gene of interest with CRISPR’s help, will work in field trials as hoped. To find out, a green light to test this technology out of the labs will have to be negotiated with the public, stakeholders, regulators, and governments of affected countries. A first step in this direction was taken last week with the commitment to respect shared guiding principles in gene drive research and communication published in Science by the technology main sponsors and supporters. Signatory organizations are scattered around the world, from the US to India, with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation at the forefront with its Target Malaria project.

The GMOs débacle has taught us a lesson on what can happen if you fail to engage with the public, and scientists don’t want to repeat the mistake of dropping a controversial technology on an unprepared society. This is probably the rationale for the guiding principles laid down to advance quality science, promote good governance, demonstrate transparency and accountability, engage thoughtfully with affected communities, foster opportunities to strengthen capacity and education. “Moving forward, the forum of gene drive sponsors and supporters will convene to discuss the next steps in operationalizing the principles,” they promise.

It won’t be an easy road. One should not take for granted that all citizens want to be engaged on issues as complex as gene drives, how are the subjects to be selected then? The most vocal lobbies are not always representative of people’s real attitudes. And if fear prevails even after all the engagement efforts, what’s the lesson to be learned?

[Image credit: Pete Ryan, Harvard Magazine]

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