Frequently Asked Questions on Gene Drives

What is a gene drive?

A "gene drive" is a recent development in biotechnology. It is an advanced application of genetic modification and based on an existing genome editing tool, called CRISPR-Cas9, that allows scientists to precisely insert, replace, delete or regulate genes in many different species. A gene drive enables a quick and persistent spread of a genetic trait within a population of a particular organism. A quick and persistent spread of the trait is especially feasible in organisms with a short generation time. Gene drives are only effective in sexually reproducing organisms.

What would be the aim of applying a gene drive?

Application of a gene drive is possible in practices related to ecology, agriculture and health. An example is the application of a gene drive in insects aiming at preventing or even abolishing the spread of serious diseases like Malaria, dengue and Lyme. Other possible applications are making resistant insects susceptible to natural toxins, or reducing the chances of survival of invasive or exotic species.

Are there any applications of gene drives yet?

Applications of gene drives are currently only in the R&D phase. Recently described gene drives are applied in fruitflies and mosquitoes and are focused on inheritance and stability. Applications of gene drives have not been reported in The Netherlands yet.

The application of genetically modified mosquitoes for controlling Dengue is named as a possibility to control  the Zika virus as well. Are these mosquitoes carrying a gene drive?

No.

What genetically modified mosquitoes are applied against Dengue? How are is they different from  a gene drive?

The genetically modified mosquitoes used for controlling Dengue are not able to produce progeny. This leads to a temporal reduction of the mosquito population. As mentioned, the mosquito is genetically modified, but not by using a gene drive.

Is it possible to use mosquitoes with a gene drive to control and prevent the spread of the Zika virus?

To answer this question, more research is needed. Gene drive as a scientific principle is broadly applicable, but if it would also work for this specific case, needs to be investigated in more detail.

The new technique to edit DNA targeted and precisely, so called CRISPR-Cas9, has received a lot of attention. Is this the same technique as gene drive?

No.

Is there a connection between the CRISPR-Cas9 technique and gene drive?

Yes, there is a connection. CRISPR-Cas9 is a so called gene-editing technique, that can be used to select very precisely the piece of DNA that you would like to edit (CRISPR) and subsequently cut the DNA (Cas9). A gene drive is an advanced application that uses this technique.

What is the most important cause for concern when using a gene drive?

By using a gene drive an entire population can be genetically altered relatively quickly and permanently. This alteration is in principal irreversible. There is no natural mechanism that can undo the gene drive trait. Moreover, the genetic alteration can take place rapidly in organisms that reproduce sexually and have a short generation time. This can lead to the alteration of a genetic trait in almost an entire population in just a few generations.

Can the effects of a gene drive be undone?

A gene drive is in many cases not reversible and that is why caution is required when organisms with a gene drive are introduced into the environment. Once a gene drive has been introduced into a population, it is not easily reversible.  Gene drive is an emerging very technology . Research is ongoing into the possibilities to control a gene drive and how to reverse its effects. A possibility   is to develop a gene drive that reverses the effect of a former gene drive. However, considerable research into this topic is needed.

What are the risks of a gene drive?

It is difficult to generally answer this question, because it depends on the specific circumstances. The potential risk is determined by many factors such as the type of genetic modification, the effect of the newly introduced trait, the way of spreading in the environment. The risk factor is an important issue. The current approach in risk assessment does not take into account the specific effects of a gene drive. This means that the way a that the risks of GMOs are assessment and the data that are required for such an assessment, need to tailored to gene drive applications.

Does every application of a gene drive entail a risk?

No. There are applications of gene drives (in laboratories) that do not form a risk to human health and the environment. This depends on the organism and the environment into which the organism is introduced (accidentally or deliberately). The risks of a gene drive application need to be assessed case by case.

What is the advice of RIVM?

RIVM indicates that the way the risk assessment of GMOs is performed should be adapted to address the aspect of the gene drive. Further research and expertise, as well as international consultation into this topic is required. Until then, RIVM recommends that authorisation should be obligatory for all applications of organisms with a gene drive. Authorisation is only granted if the risks are adequately assessed. This way we can ensure that an adequate safety assessment is performed case by case, without unduly hampering innovation.  It also makes it possible to maintain a clear overview of these developments.

Have there been authorisation requests to work with gene drives in the Netherlands?

No, there have not been any authorisation requests for applications yet.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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