gene drive

Genetic forcing indicted at Cancun biodiversity summit

Protecting diversity. This is the ambition of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, which is being held in Cancun from 2 to 17 December. While the figures for the 6e extinction are dramatic - half of vertebrate species have been decimated in the last forty years - even though the causes are known - pollution, fragmentation of ecosystems, deforestation - 160 NGOs are drawing attention to an emerging risk: the destruction of so-called "harmful" populations. The tool they fear is called genetic forcing ("gene drive" in English). Even if many warnings on its use have recently appeared, everything seems ready for the agribusiness to trivialize it.
AMalaria, Zika, chikungunya... are terrible scourges. Caused by mosquitoes that all affected countries intend to eradicate. Researchers have long been examining chemical (insecticides), physical (radiation), transgenic solutions... Nothing seems to be effective enough next to a bludgeoning weapon: genetic forcing. So much so that the Bill and Melida Gates Foundation has invested 75 million dollars in this technique. Within two years, it should propose to African leaders anopheles - malaria-carrying mosquitoes - modified by this technology to be resistant to the parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, the agent of malaria.
What's this all about? The process is a direct result of recent advances in genome editing.and the very famous CRISPR-Cas9 technique capable of copying and pasting genes. The gene drive technique concentrates in a cassette a gene that we want to propagate and the tool - called the selfish gene - to accelerate its dissemination. The scissors used for microsurgery are embedded and encoded within the targeted genome. The assembly makes it possible to short-circuit Mendel's laws, to the point that with each generation, 100% of the descendants have acquired the intrusive gene. In about ten generations of individuals reproducing sexually, the cassette has contaminated the entire or extreme majority of the wild population (see diagram below).
In April 2016, in response to the alarming Zika epidemic (affecting not only Latin America, but also parts of Africa, South Asia and the Pacific Islands), WHO initiated mosquito control programmes and encouraged experiments, including with the candidate of the British firm Oxitec, the OX513A mosquito. For researchers engaged in this vector control, such as Eric Marois, from the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biology in Strasbourg, the public health issue is a legitimate one. Insofar as it is verified that there are no deleterious effects on other species. "We must propose solutions, but we must be careful about how to implement them," he insisted during his hearing at the Parliamentary Office for Scientific and Technological Choices (OPECST) in April 2016.

Sexual reproduction creates diversity, genetic forcing eliminates it...

However, a network of 160 associations from around the world has just expressed its opposition to this technique during the Cancun (Mexico) summit - from 2 to 17 December - dedicated to biodiversity. This Monday, December 5, on the occasion of the 13th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), a request for a moratorium on the "new genetic technique of extinction ». The associations believe that "it is not possible to adequately predict the cascading ecological effects of diffusion in wild ecosystems. They are concerned that irreversible effects and the crossing of species barriers. They call for an end to all recourse to genetic forcing, even for research purposes.
This position is based on the work of the Canadian ETC (Erosion, Technology and Concentration) group, which has been advocating for the establishment of a United Nations-backed technology governance body (ICENT) for the past 20 years. In the same spirit, in France, associative networks such as FNE or INC already involved in the High Council for Biotechnology or the Economic, Social and Environmental Council (EESC) are proposing the creation of a High Council for Technological Innovation (HCIT).
Aware that technological choices are driven by the markets, Pat Mooney, director of ETC Group, keeps reminding us of the dangers of the reduction of diversity, of the concentration of seed companies (5 multinationals today hold 60% of agricultural varieties) for world food security. Moreover, he likes to recall, "There can be profit even if a technique doesn't work.".
Pat Mooney is not isolated: many researchers point to irreversible ecological safety or ethical problems. In the report published by the American Academy of Sciences in June 2016 on gene drive technology, Jesse Kirkpatrick and Andrew Light, Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy (George Manson University) gave a series of serious objections. These included unpredictable off-target effects, large unknowns about ecosystem dynamics, and inadequate ecological risk assessment frameworks. According to Jesse Kirkpatrick, "Gene drive technologies raise important safety issues (...) Current regulations are uncertain or non-existent. Moreover, they cannot be effective if we realize that the gene drive is not traceable and that its immediate effectiveness hides its unpredictable long-term effects.

Pest management tool

As living species have no borders, the crucial issue will be to be able to regulate the use of this technique at the international level. On which organisms? According to whose interests? Sanitary or economic? To protect people or markets?
Because it's not the same to fight killer mosquitoes or to attack... crop pests like the corn rootworm, which does a lot of damage. "Genetic forcing as a pest management tool" is likely to become commonplace.says philosopher Baptiste Morizot, from the University of Aix-Marseille. While the gene drive is not a cataclysmic technology, it is the adequacy of this tool with the logic of agribusiness that makes us fear the worst. The risk is that the validation of the technique in public health will be used as a Trojan horse to legitimize a priori the use of the gene drive against all kinds of pests, without questioning what they harm? ».

Because the notion of "harmful" is very relative ...

Note that the term harmful is applied by agribusiness to anything that minimizes crop yield, productivity. However, there is an abundance of predators that threaten economic interests. And the gene drive could be very useful to put an end to these "pests" seen as strict pests when they can also be pollinators or useful cogs of ecosystems.
Last September, Monsanto has obtained the first license for the agricultural use of CRISPR-Cas9 at the Broad Institute (which is an offshoot of MIT and Harvard). For Issi Rosen, commercial director of the Broad Institut, the use of publishing techniques in agriculture is a major challenge. raises ethical and ecological concerns. This is why the license was granted to Monsanto only under the condition: do not use the gene drive! The institute also prohibits the sterilization of seeds and the modification of tobacco (to increase the effects of addiction) for commercial use.
For some, it is the access of all to these techniques that is fearsome. Australian researcher Colin Campbell believes that "The most disturbing thing about the gene drive is its price: for just $30, anyone can use it. It's the combination of very low cost and availability that makes it so dangerous.
For his part, Israeli geneticist David Gurwitz (Tel Aviv University) warns: if the gene drive technique makes it possible to prevent mosquitoes from infecting humans with the malaria parasite, it can also be used as a cargo ship to integrate lethal toxins and infect humans... ".
In France, the High Council for Biotechnology has been asked to give an opinion on the use of gene drive in mosquito control. The report is expected in early 2017.

Not to be missed:
On January 17, 2017, the first Legrain Conference will be held at the ENS, named after an ENS patron passionate about scientific research. The purpose of the Legrain Conferences at the ENS is to highlight the results obtained in the framework of innovative research, currently underway, and whose implications could well turn our contemporary societies upside down.
In this spirit, the first Legrain Conference at the ENS will be devoted to : Genome engineering, between hopes and fears,
It will take place in the Jean Jaurès room, and will aim in particular at taking stock of the scientific and ethical issues of the Crispr/Cas9 technique,

The Legrain Conference will take place in two parts:
- a first scientific part (16h30-19h) entitled CrispR technology and its applicationsThe conference, which will be held in French and English in the presence of several prestigious international researchers, has been prepared in advance with teachers and students from the ENS;
- a second part for the general public (20h-22h), in the form of a round table, entitled Ethical and legal implications of the CrispR revolutionin the presence of philosophers, doctors and lawyers.Tuesday 17 January 2017, ENS, 45 rue d'Ulm, salle Jean Jaurès, free admission subject to availability.

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