On the occasion of the thirteenth Conference of the Parties at the Biological Diversity Convention held in Cancan, Mexico, over 150 non-governmental organisations called for a moratorium on "gene drive" techniques aimed at modifying the genome of a species in order to eradicate or preserve it.
New genome engineering techniques look promising in terms of biomedical research but also raise concerns for those mindful of the environment. Among these new techniques, the latest involve "editing an entire species with new traits by introducing gene constructions capable of spreading to the whole population".
New genome editing methods, some of which use the Crispr-CAS9 tool, facilitate gene handling on a vast scale.
The NGOs who signed the appeal explained that, "The gene drive is deliberately designed to spread and persist, with no consideration for national borders. To date, there is no international process in place to govern the cross-border effects of a gene drive".
The NGOs added that the consequences of a gene drive operation are only partly known: "It is impossible to adequately predict the ecological cascading effects of diffusion [of a genetic modification] in wild ecosystems". They emphasise that the genes introduced "could diffuse irreversibly and cross the species barrier". Jim Thomas, Program Director at the ETC Group, acknowledged the fact that, "A single organism erroneously introduced into the environment can, in theory, alter the entire species, i.e. the stakes are high".
Eric Marois, scientist at the Strasbourg Institute for Molecular and Cell Biology, works on gene drive systems aimed at eradicating malaria-carrying mosquitoes. For his part, he states that, "This kind of reaction is perfectly understandable. But if, today, the call for a moratorium on gene drive techniques is upheld, in a context where there is still no regulatory framework, a ban on laboratory research into such topics will be even more frustrating".
Professor Richard Corlett at the Chinese Academy of Sciences is in favour of a moratorium on operational applications since no regulatory framework exists. However, as far as he is concerned, a research moratorium poses a problem: "From year to year, it will be easier for a large number of laboratories and countries to develop gene drive systems. A research moratorium implies that any molecular biologist would know, in theory, how to develop this kind of system without learning how to control it". These techniques are "inexpensive and undetectable but do we want these systems to be developed only by States, companies or scientists without any control mechanism in place?"
Le Monde (Stéphane Foucart) 05/12/2016
Photo : Pixabay, DR.