Perhaps the one sentiment that can be universally agreed upon when discussing genetic modification is that it is controversial, a topic subjected to misunderstanding and misrepresentation. Moreover, the term “genetic modification” has been stigmatized in reference to food and popularized in such a way that any mention of the phrase leads to almost immediate disapproval by the masses.
Genetic modification, however, is not simply a process within the purview of agricultural advancement, and the scientific persistence into the research of genetic modification has resulted in numerous discoveries that likewise remain controversial. Examples can be found within medical science, such as germ line modification in eggs, sperm, or early-stage embryos to correct for genetic defects.
Recent studies into a method to modify gene drives may provide the fuel for what could be one of the most incendiary debates on genetic modification in recent history. A gene drive is a technique that uses the promotion of a specific gene to raise the prevalence within a population. Biologists have created a strategy called CRISPR, which refers to the organization of repeated DNA sequences found in bacterial and microorganismal genomes, that can be used to manipulate certain genes within a species.
This technique, as discussed by Arizona State University evolutionary ecologist James Collins in an interview with Science, could be used to “weed out disease by driving the population that carries the disease to extinction.”
This proposed idea has potential for implementation in regions where mosquitoes carry malaria, a disease which, per the World Health Organization, is a risk to almost half of the world’s population. This process would begin with the genetic engineering of a mosquito population resistant to the parasites that transmit malaria. This would continue throughout various generations of intermingling with the current mosquito population until the trait is passed down through all the mosquitoes, leaving the parasites with limited means for transport.
Opposition to this proposal has come from those who believe that the “natural” way of the world should be preserved. They argue that the enactment of this system would turn a species that functions within nature into a human-made creation, making that which was once “natural” into something artificial.
There is some validity to this argument, as the changing of one population of a species may affect much more than what is evident through simple observation. Even so, biologists working on CRISPR have undergone extensive research regarding the ecosystems of the regions in which this project would be implemented. What’s more, the primary goal of CRISPR, to make mosquitoes resistant to the malaria-spreading parasite, would not be actualized for years to come.
Though the importance of the ecosystems of malaria-susceptible areas should never be undermined, the well-being of humans and the relief from considerable burden endured every day by countries and communities around the globe should be weighed in such a way that promotes both environmental, economic, and humanitarian stability.