BIPP Insights

BIPP intern Yiwei Wang and guest writer Chris Bidlack collaborated to write an article on genetic extinction technology. Please read below to learn more about this topic!

Are We Ready for Genetic Extinction Technology?

The field of genetics is accelerating at an incredible rate, leading to many new genetic technologies previously unimaginable. One such application, known as genetic extinction technology, uses a gene-editing method called a “gene drive” to insert a gene into the population of an undesired species. The inserted gene then sterilizes the population over the course of several generations as it is passed from parents to their offspring. Some scientists plan to use the technology in ways that benefit human health and the environment, such as through eliminating malaria-carrying mosquitoes and killing off invasive species. Other critics worry that using extinction technology could damage the environment in ways we do not intend, or even be used as a bioweapon. The debate around genetic extinction technology raises ethical questions about how our technology can harm the environment, and how we should anticipate unintended consequences of new technologies.

Advocates of genetic extinction technology believe its applications can be used to eradicate disease-causing organisms. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for instance, supports using genetic extinction to wipe out malaria-carrying Anopheles mosquitoes in Africa. Citing how malaria infects up to one-quarter of inhabitants in some West African countries, the Gates Foundation argues that current methods, such as mosquito nets and pesticides, are inadequate for combating the disease. “You can’t walk around with a bed net on you all the time,” says Gates spokesman Fil Randazzo.

But extinction technology may have other beneficial applications besides human health. Environmentalists also see promising results for using genetic extinction technology to help protect threatened or endangered species from disease and invasive species. In the Hawaiian Islands, for instance, some researchers are hoping to use extinction technology to wipe out a malarial mosquito population that is infecting and killing off the state’s native birds. Scientists are also developing the extinction technology to insert genes into New Zealand’s invasive rodents. Rats, possums, and weasels introduced by European colonizers have almost wiped out the island’s native flightless birds, and the New Zealand government seeks to eradicate the rodents, potentially by using genetic extinction technology.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about extinction technology, however. Many conservationists are alarmed with this new method of wiping out undesired species, and fear that it could have unintended and harmful consequences for the environment. For instance, the extinction gene might be able to jump from the targeted species to another, which could potentially kill off a non-targeted species by mistake. Or, the targeted species may benefit their ecosystem in ways we do not understand, and their extinction could be harmful for their environment. The planet is already suffering from unintended consequences of our technological advancements–fossil fuels which power our vehicles and electricity grids are contributing to global climate change, while plastics are heavily polluting our oceans and killing marine life. Should we use further technologies which alter our environment if it could have dangerous consequences? Questions are also raised about who has the right to use this technology, which has the capability to wipe out a species. Do governments, corporations, or individuals have the right to use a technology which can kill animals across international borders?

Still other critics are worried about the technology being used to create a bioweapon. A top United States military research group, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), invested $100 million into developing genetic extinction technology last year, making them the largest funder of extinction technology in the world. While DARPA claims that its research would not be weaponized, critics worry the technology could be developed to attack a country’s crop supply, thereby causing famine throughout a hostile nation. DARPA itself is aware of the military potential for extinction technology, and in 2017 commissioned a report to investigate the “potential threats” that could result from hostile forces acquiring this technology.

While genetic extinction technology may be useful for eradicating malaria and protecting endangered species from invasive predators, it could have harmful consequences for the environment, and might even be turned into a bioweapon if it falls into the wrong hands. The debate around genetic extinction technology is a part of larger discussions about how our technology impacts the environment, and how we can anticipate unintended consequences from our technological advancements. These questions are crucial to address as our technological advancements in in genetics and other fields continue to accelerate, creating new inventions we never thought possible.

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