Image: Carlos Poveda / FUSION

The gene drive is quickly becoming one of the most controversial technologies of our time. Its possibilities are at once spectacular and alarming: by using genetic engineering to override natural selection during reproduction, a gene drive could allow scientists to alter the genetic makeup of an entire species. This could be used to eliminate diseases and protect natural habitats—but could also go horribly wrong in the wrong hands.

Which is why the scientific community is freaking out over a group of undergraduate students that just came very close to creating a gene drive as part of a science competition.

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The students, from the University of Minnesota, were inspired by a paper that explained how gene drive works and how to build one. A gene drive is so named for its ability to “drive” certain lab-selected traits into every offspring of an engineered species, eliminating competition with natural selection. Theoretically, this means that if released in the wild, over many generations the genetics of a lab-altered species could spread throughout an entire wild population. In case it’s not obvious, that is some pretty crazy stuff.

The students, who were competing in the international synthetic biology competition iGEM, didn’t actually successfully create a gene drive. They were interested in creating a “reversal drive” that could undo a gene drive’s effects in yeast. That would mean first creating a gene drive for yeast, and then an antidote to undo it. The students’ plan was to remove the ADE2 gene in yeast cells, turning red yeast pink, and then restore them to their original shade. They downloaded the genetic sequence for the gene drive from a scientific paper and sent the information to a DNA synthesis company, along with the sequence for a reversal drive they designed themselves. Then they got to work introducing the gene drive and its reversal drive into their yeast.

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In the end, the students were foiled by inadequate lab equipment and too little time. When the competition deadline rolled around in October, they hadn’t even finished the first half of the project.

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But the project raised eyebrows, by showing how easy it could be to create a potentially world-changing technology without a fancy lab or years of advanced training. In this case, the students did take precautions to make sure their lab-made creation didn’t spread in the wild. For instance, they used a strain of yeast that has difficulty surviving outside of a laboratory. But the title of their paper, “Shifting Gene Drives Into Reverse: Now Mosquitoes Are The Yeast Of Our Worries,” also suggested they were interested in experimenting with gene drives in insects, not just funky-colored yeast.

“We thought it was super cool, but we immediately started thinking of some of the negative implications,” one of the students told STAT News.

A group of college students’ proposal for a gene drive experiment. IMAGE: University of Minnesota iGEM team

The experiment, in other words, was controversial. Since then, the competition board has outlined strict rules for students who wish to experiment with gene drive technology, which is not yet regulated, and has drawn criticism even when undertaken by established scientists. Last week at the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity in Mexico, world governments rejected calls for a global moratorium on gene drives. But the convention called for caution in field-testing the products of synthetic biology, and for better efforts to assess potential risk. The Pentagon has expressed alarm about how gene drives might be used for bioterrorism. Even pioneers of the technology have urged scientists that the risks of gene drive technology warrants moving forward with extreme caution and care.

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Still, the potential for a truly catastrophic lab accidents, while necessitating precautions, is unlikely. And in the end, the increasing accessibility of cutting edge technologies is probably a good thing. It means there are more minds contemplating the problems that plague our world, and more hands contributing to the body of scientific research. As long as we can keep everything under control.

[STAT News]