Gene drive and other methods of editing the genomes of wild organisms could save millions of lives and prevent billions of animals from suffering each year. But advances that are intended to alter the shared environment must be developed and used wisely, if at all. For the foreseeable future, that means by nonprofits.
Gene drive is a ubiquitous natural phenomenon in which genetic elements are inherited more often than usual, allowing them to quickly spread through wild populations even if they don’t help organisms reproduce. Engineered gene drives use modern genome editing tools such as CRISPR to duplicate this effect. Unlike a normal edit, gene drive systems could lastingly alter or suppress local or global populations of a target species, potentially eradicating insect-borne diseases, healing damaged ecosystems, and preventing animal suffering.
As one of those who introduced CRISPR-based gene drive to the world, I hold myself morally responsible for any and all consequences that emerge from the technology. In my eyes, if something goes wrong that I might have foreseen, that’s on me. If my actions or words inadvertently prevent gene drive from benefiting others, that’s on me. If my failure to act prevents it from saving lives, that’s on me.
So why do I oppose for-profit development and use of gene drive?
I have nothing against capitalism that I don’t also hold against evolution. Capitalism is great for raising funds to launch risky ventures that wouldn’t otherwise be possible and, of course, at creating wealth more generally. If a for-profit company was to transparently disclose its intentions to edit the shared environment before starting research, commit to working closely with interested local communities, and generally ensure that people have a voice in decisions intended to affect them, I certainly wouldn’t have any ethical objections. But I do have a practical one.
When people know you will benefit financially from a proposal, they’re less likely to trust your judgment. According to one recent study focused on biotechnology, support drops by more than 20 percent when people learn that a technology was developed by a for-profit company rather than a nonprofit one.
Gene drive and other ecotechnologies depend on popular support. Since they involve the genetic engineering of wild populations, that support is by no means guaranteed, especially if there is for-profit involvement.
Just look at genetically modified foods, which offered few benefits to consumers but plenty of financial rewards to the pesticide companies that developed most of them. A survey by the Pew Research Center found a 51 percent opinion gap between scientists and the general public on whether such foods are safe, larger than any other issue. Fully half of Americans who care about the topic distrust scientists’ findings due to perceived industry influence. That mistrust can cost lives: In 2002, the government of Zambia refused to distribute food aid during a famine because the food was genetically modified.
The best-known potential application of gene-drive technology would help eradicate malaria in Africa by reducing populations of the main mosquito that spreads the disease. This will soon be possible: An academic group affiliated with the nonprofit group Target Malaria recently crashed laboratory populations of this mosquito using a gene-drive system to suppress reproduction. But mathematical models suggest that this type of self-propagating gene drive system would eventually spread to every African nation harboring this mosquito species. Will those nations be able to unanimously agree to move forward, even to help eradicate a disease that kills almost 400,000 children a year? That’s far from certain.
So why make it harder by associating the technology with the profit motive?
Anything that makes a pan-African agreement more difficult to reach is expected to cost children’s lives. Suppose there’s only a 50 percent chance that self-propagating gene-drive systems will work, potentially saving 400,000 lives each year. That means the expected cost of a decade-long delay would amount to 2 million children dying needlessly. Indeed, doing or saying anything that reduces the odds of agreement by 1 percent would cost more than 20,000 children’s lives. That’s just due to malaria, never mind other diseases such as schistosomiasis. Now recall that for-profit development decreases support for new technologies by more than 20 percent. That’s a lot of lives.
The profit motive has become a key argument for proponents of a total and indefinite moratorium on all forms of gene drive, whether localized or species wide, that will be voted on this week by the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. Proponents claim that despite scientists’ focus on malaria and other humanitarian applications, the technology is primarily a tool to benefit giant agribusinesses. Mistrust is so strong that many people believe this argument, even though Monsanto’s license to use CRISPR explicitly forbids any use involving gene drive.
If the moratorium proposal passes, it would incur a terrible cost measured in children’s lives, species extinctions, and animal suffering. To be clear: The effects of any gene-drive system would depend entirely on the nature of the alteration, the organism to be edited, and the ecosystem in which it lives, leaving other areas untouched. Why should some people get veto power over a technology that won’t affect them, but might save the lives of other people’s children?
At least many supporters back the moratorium because they sincerely value the perceived purity of the natural world, and wish to protect what they personally view to be a moral good of the highest order.
Those who would launch for-profit ventures involving gene drive, as well as their enablers, have no such excuse. Their actions are also expected to impose costs and restrictions upon others, but would offer only privatized financial benefits. It’s possible, of course, that some individuals might sincerely believe that their particular application absolutely requires private financing and that its benefits would outweigh the expected costs to nonprofit projects, all of which currently rely entirely on public or philanthropic support. But they’ve probably just never sat down to calculate the probable consequences of their actions.
In an era of increasingly powerful and accessible technologies, we can’t afford to be thoughtless in how we develop and use our new capabilities — or decline to use them. That goes double for advances capable of unilaterally affecting the shared environment. For these kinds of controversial technologies, keeping early applications in the nonprofit realm could help us make wiser decisions about whether, when, and how to move forward.
Starting with gene drive won’t help the revenue stream from my own patents, but it’s the right thing to do.
Kevin M. Esvelt, Ph.D., is an assistant professor and leader of the Sculpting Evolution group at the MIT Media Lab. He is listed as an inventor on numerous patents concerning CRISPR-based technologies filed by MIT and Harvard University, including localized and self-propagating gene drive systems. The views expressed are entirely those of the author.