By Silvia Ribeiro
In order to move forward with this enormous technological risk, the biotech industry has changed tack. A few international NGOs promote this new biotechnology as a means of “nature conservation”, which they propose to use to extinguish invasive species: mice, insects, weeds. They also presented a motion to the World Congress of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) meeting September 1-10 in Hawaii to adopt synthetic biology as a conservation tool.
Faced with this, 30 personalities from the scientific field, environmentalists, lawyers, indigenous leaders and others, published a call to put a stop to these proposals and to the technology of "gene drives". Among the signatories - which include Jane Goodall, David Suzuki, Vandana Shiva, Víctor Toledo, Alejandro Nadal - are the presidents of the Union of Scientists Committed to Society, Elena Álvarez-Buylla, Mexico and Angelika Hilbeck, Germany, of the Red Committee of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER).
Dr Hilbeck, an entomologist, noted that “gene drives are a technology that aims to kill species. Although it may seem to some professional conservationist a “good solution” for complex situations, there are high risks of unintended consequences, which could be worse than the problem they are trying to solve ”(www.synbiowatch.org/gene-drives-iucn- pr).
The "gene drives" or gene drives in English, are based on a technology so new that there is still no agreed translation. It is a transgenic construction that "tricks" nature so that the sexually reproducing species (plants, insects, animals, humans), forcibly pass on a foreign gene to all subsequent generations.
It is a biotechnological way to destroy the advantage developed in the co-evolution of species in millions of years with sexual reproduction. Typically, progeny inherit 50 percent of the genetic information from each parent, making it easier for organisms to eliminate genes that are not useful or foreign to them in later generations. With the genetic drivers, the artificial construct designed with CRISPR-Cas9 technology cuts / inserts new sequences and eliminates the corresponding gene provided by the other parent, thus guaranteeing that finally the introduced gene is present in the entire species. (More information at http://tinyurl.com/hp2gph5)
In case it is a modification so that the progeny is of a single sex, the species would become extinct. This is exactly what the GBIRd (Genetic Biocontrol on Invasive Rodents) project is proposed, led by the Island Conservation group, which develop rodents manipulated with gene drives so that they can only breed male mice. They intend to release them in 2020 on islands to eliminate mice that harm birds. Another project that wants to be released in Hawaii (from the Revive and Restore group) are mosquitoes with genetic drivers to extinguish them in the same way, arguing that they transmit avian malaria that affects native birds. This despite the fact that birds have begun to develop natural resistance to this disease.
The approach is narrow and erroneous, because it does not touch on the causes, conditions and interactions in which the supposed “harmful” species develop and therefore, they will continue to emerge or be replaced by others with the same function. In the case of GBIRd, it is about manipulating common mice, so the cascade of risks on the species, on other related rodents and the role they play in different ecosystems, is enormous and impossible to control. This is not very different in the case of mosquitoes; the elimination of one type of mosquito - if possible - will make way for others that will become vectors of disease, perhaps much more difficult to control.
For this and other reasons, 71 governments and 355 NGOs that belong to the IUCN, instead of supporting the use of synthetic biology, voted an amendment to said motion, establishing a “de facto” moratorium within the IUCN to support or endorse the research, field experiments and use of gene drives, until they are thoroughly analyzed and their impacts on biodiversity and other aspects are evaluated. (http://tinyurl.com/hht8byo).
The use of gene drives is not only intended for conservation, the transnational agribusiness companies are developing it as a way to eliminate weeds, reverse resistance of invasive herbs to pesticides in transgenic crops, to increase their use. The fact that more media importance is given as an instrument for conservation or prevention of diseases is also a manipulation to prevent them from being associated with the widespread global rejection of transgenic crops.
It is urgent to broaden the debate on the uses, risks and impacts of synthetic biology and especially of genetic drivers, on which a strict international moratorium must be established to prevent any release. To get started, here you can add your signature to the aforementioned letter http://tinyurl.com/jm4t6bg.
- Silvia Ribeiro, Researcher at the ETC Group - www.etcgroup.org