‘Gene drives’ seem to be the ultimate high-leverage technology. Yesterday’s report from the US National Academies begun the job of describing what is at stake, but it missed some important questions.
Jim Thomas is programme director at the ETC Group
If there is a prize for the fastest emerging tech controversy of the century the ‘gene drive’ may have just won it. In under eighteen months the sci-fi concept of a ‘mutagenic chain reaction’ that can drive a genetic trait through an entire species (and maybe eradicate that species too) has gone from theory to published proof of principle to massively-shared TED talk (apparently an important step these days) to the subject of a US National Academy of Sciences high profile study - complete with committees, hearings, public inputs and a glossy 216 page report release. Previous technology controversies have taken anywhere from a decade to over a century to reach that level of policy attention. So why were Gene Drives put on the turbo track to science academy report status? One word: leverage.
What a gene drive does is simple: it ensures that a chosen genetic trait will reliably be passed on to the next generation and every generation thereafter. This overcomes normal Mendelian genetics where a trait may be diluted or lost through the generations. The effect is that the engineered trait is driven through an entire population, re-engineering not just single organisms but enforcing the change in every descendant - re-shaping entire species and ecosystems at will.
It’s a perfect case of a very high-leverage technology. Archimedes famously said “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world. ” Gene drive developers are in effect saying “Give me a gene drive and an organism to put it in and I can wipe out species, alter ecosystems and cause large-scale modifications.” Gene drive pioneer Kevin Esvelt calls gene drives “an experiment where if you screw up, it affects the whole world”.
Its not the first very high-leverage technology. Nuclear power is similar, and solar geoengineering holds the promise of global changes from small interventions. Indeed historians may well look back on last year’s proof of the ‘mutagenic chain reaction’ as biology’s ‘nuclear’ moment – analogous to Enrico Fermi’s proof of the nuclear chain reaction three quarters of a century earlier. Like the nuclear chain reaction, initiating a mutagenic chain reaction denotes awesome power over the future and has significant geopolitical ramifications. From an evolutionary perspective a gene drive might be better regarded as a ‘gene bomb’: dropped into the normal course of inheritance, it annihilates natural variety and captures the course of a species evolution from that point in time onwards. It may even annihilate the species itself. Because it spreads in the environment, a gene drive also exerts power over geography and may be a tool for controlling agriculture, food security and land. Were the National Academy of Sciences right to rush out a gene drive policy study at high speed? You betchya.
And yet reading the final result , ‘Gene Drives on the Horizon’ it appears that the very thing that drove the politics to get such a report published, that awesome and troubling political power that gene drives hold, is bizarrely underplayed. Its not that it is a bad report – it is even excellent in places: it takes seriously the threat to biodiversity and warns strongly against environmental release. It has important things to say about the need for both ecological assessment and genuine public engagement . It even dares to assert that “the outcomes of engagement may be as crucial as the scientific outcomes to decisions about whether to release a gene-drive modified organism into the environment.”
Yet for all that (and 200 pages of text too) the NAS’s report fails to deliver a robust policy study because it ducks some of the most important questions. It would be fair to say that there are at least four explosive issues looming “on the horizon’ for the topic of gene drives: Militarization, Commercialization, Food Security and Biodiversity. The report tackles only the last of these and downplays or entirely ignores the remaining three. Why it looked the other way on these crucial questions is hard to fathom. The NAS study was co-funded by DARPA ( a US military agency) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Both institutions are significantly invested in gene drive research. Is there a connection?
Directly addressing militarization should have been obvious. There are many scenarios for potential weaponisation of gene drives as well as serious potential ramifications from unintended effects. Imagine for a moment that a hostile actor could crash the harvest of an island state by quietly introducing a gene drive or could insert a gene drive into a biting insect population to deliver toxins. Gene drive technology will quickly and inevitably end up controlled by powerful military actors and decisions on gene drive use and development will be determined by geopolitical and security considerations as well as commercial and trade interests. The same US defense research agency (DARPA) who paid for the NAS study have made it known that they are going all-in on gene drive research and development of ‘robust’ synthetic organisms. There is good reason to be worried.
As a result of playing down weaponisation concerns the report entirely failed to recommend two of the most highly relevant international governance instruments that will need to brought into play to respond to the security threats posed by gene drives. The UN Environmental Modification treaty (ENMOD) was negotiated to address exactly the sort of intentional environmental modifications that gene drives would deliver. ‘Environmental modification’ includes any technique for deliberate manipulation of natural processes – the dynamics, composition or structure of the earth, “including its biota” - so ENMOD fits gene drive governance perfectly. Meanwhile the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) has already begun to discuss gene drives.
The report also entirely fails to acknowledge the strong commercial drivers that may bring gene drives into agricultural use. Here commercial interests could potentially derail precautionary governance. So far, public discussion of gene drives has been intentionally framed by speculative health and conservation applications such as eradicating malarial mosquitoes. However it is the agricultural applications that could eventually come to dominate. The NAS committee considered one agricultural case study of engineering wild pigweed to be susceptible to Roundup herbicide, but failed to address how an application like this would clearly enhance the agricultural monopoly of Monsanto – the maker of Roundup - and how its use would transform agriculture and food systems. The report did note that if pigweed in North America was suppressed by a gene drive it could inadvertently end up reducing harvests of its close relative amaranth, an important food source in South America. Ouch.
This lack of of consideration of food security implications is a particularly significant gap since the key published patent application on gene drives, held by Harvard University, includes a long list of over 50 weeds and almost 200 herbicides that the technology could be used for, thereby laying out a business case for licensing the patent to agrochemical companies. Neither Harvard nor any other private entity should have the power to license this high leverage technology to private agribusiness. Ideally all intellectual property relating to gene drives should be surrendered to a neutral international body under multilateral UN governance. This would be analogous to the steps that taken by governments to control intellectual property around nuclear technologies.
The NAS report correctly states that “a gene drive knows no political boundaries” and identifies the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and its protocols as one of the key international governance bodies that must address gene drive governance (the three that it fails to mention are ENMOD, the Biological weapons Convention and the UN Committee on World Food Security).
This debate now has to move quickly to that international arena. In Cancun in December 2016 the 194 countries that are parties to the CBD will be making decisions on governance of synthetic biology at the thirteenth conference of the Parties (COP13). Gene Drives are synthetic biology and should be addressed there too. At the least the CBD should take note of this NAS report and also the warning comments about gene drives made by its own Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Synthetic Biology in order to agree an international moratorium on release of gene drives. Luckily, this would be in line with the NAS’s key recommendation that “there is insufficient evidence to support the environmental release of gene drives.” Could Gene Drives go from proof of principle to UN decision in under two years? Now that would be responsive governance.
Published in The Guardian, June 9, 2016