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New Zealand’s Plan To Weaponize CRISPR To Annihilate Pests Sparks Debate In Scientific Community

Possum.royguisinger/Pixabay

It’s always the same story. Governments want to use science as a weapon of mass destruction, certain members of the scientific community speak up about the potential consequences, and the debates ensue. In the case of New Zealand, a plan to use genetic engineering to kill off invasive species such as rats and possums is being proposed. Experts, on the other hand, want to caution the public of the potential backlash of genetic weaponry going out of control.

What New Zealand wants to do is called “gene drive system,” Futurism report, and it essentially involves genetically modifying certain members of a species. When these subjects are released into the wild and mate, they will pass on genes that will have a certain effect. In the case of the pests plaguing the country, the effect is either the reduction of their numbers or the complete decimation of the species.

In an effort to clarify what the effects of such a move would be, the University of Otago’ Neil Gemmell Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Kevin Esvelt published a paper that looked at the potential consequences of this proposition. Gemmell also told Futurism that the point to the paper was not to oppose “gene drive system,” but rather, to encourage a discussion around it.

“I think it is important to point out that our piece is aimed at informing and provoking discussion about gene drives in a global context and that we are not against gene drive technology per se, or indeed opposed to the idea of exploring this technology as a component of the technical solutions that will enable New Zealand’s predator-free goal,” Gemmell said.

The biggest concern that geneticists have with regards to the concept of weaponizing gene-editing tools is the matter of control. Precisely targeting a specific set of genes in a targeted group of species is not easy. The consequences of engineering a gene that could wipe out entire species suddenly going after the wrong targets would be equivalent to introducing a new and even more devastating invasive species to the ecosystem.

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2018-10-18 00:24:54
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