One of biologist Ethan Bier’s graduate students at the University of California, San Diego, recently conducted an experiment on fruit flies with far-reaching implications – both beneficial and nightmarish – for humanity.
“It was one of the most astounding days in my personal scientific career. When he first showed me, I could not believe it,” Bier told Oregon Public Broadcasting on Thursday.
Graduate student Valentino Gantz’s used a technique called “gene drive” to accomplish something simple, yet profound: He forced a generation of brown fruit flies to have mostly blond offspring. Bier told the station his students were “jumping up and down” when the next generation maintained the mutation.
“I believe it’s going to transform the world of genetics, because it’s going to allow researchers to bypass the rules of genetics in many different spheres of activity. The gene drive immediately makes the organisms that carry [a desired mutation] have the characteristic and then secondly it causes them to have all their children have the same characteristic,” Bier said.
The effectiveness of the gene drive technique used by the University of California is amplified when combined with a method called CRISPR, which WND reported on Oct. 29.
“We’re basically able to have a molecular scalpel for genomes. All the technologies in the past were sort of like sledgehammers. … This just gives scientists the capability do something that is incredibly powerful,” biologist Jennifer Doudna told Tech Insider Oct. 28.
Proponents of the technology say it may rid the world of countless diseases or allow scientists to genetically modify insects that do not eat valuable crops. Critics warn of the unintended consequences of changing entire species, and the threat posed to humanity if such technology lands in the wrong hands.
New York University bioethicist Brendan Parent told OPB that scientists are walking a precarious tightrope.
“There are inherent problems with gene drives. We don’t know what other impacts we’re having. We don’t know whether the elimination of malaria specifically won’t somehow have genetic effects that cause a super-virulent pathogen to be released or to bring in much greater catastrophic consequences,” Parent said.
New York Medical College cell biologist Stuart Newman then turned the discussion to genetic terrorism.
‘If any group or country wanted to develop germ warfare agents they could use techniques like this. It would be quite straightforward to make new pathogens this way,’ he said.
Kevin Esvelt, an evolutionary engineer who works on gene drives at Harvard, acknowledged “profound ethical issues” exist, but said labs are working on built-in biological reset buttons for modified species.
“What that means is if someone makes a mistake then we can undo that change. It is potentially a way for us to interact with nature in a whole new way – using biology rather than bulldozers and toxic pesticides,” said Esvelt, OPB reported.