Hacking Evolution : Gene Drive
Genetic Engineering and Molecular Biology are now coming out of the Lab and solving problems which have long eluded viable solutions.
These techniques have enabled us to make changes in individual members of species to achieve desired outcomes in various fields like agriculture, medicine and energy to name a few . But, what if we want those changes to appear across an entire population? Well, now we can do that too!
Latest research findings at the University of California, San Diego and Imperial College London have empowered us to control the population and hack the course of evolution by modifying genes. The “Gene Drive” technique allows us to not only change the genes of individual members but also to ensure that the desired genes are inherited and spread across the population.
This particular study was done on Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes, which are responsible for more than 90% of deaths due to Malaria (about half a million deaths per year). The outcomes were revolutionary.
Researchers approached the problem of eradicating Malaria (and other mosquito borne diseases) primarily in two ways though the basic mechanism of action at the molecular level remains the same: genetic modifications made to the mosquito genes.
- Lethal X-Chromosomes: Modifying the genes to spread female sterility or reduce female population by making the X-Chromosomes effectively dysfunctional and thus destroy the mosquito population.
- Inability to Transmit: Altering mosquito genes to inhibit the transmission of the malarial parasite when the insect bites.
Such interventions by geneticists illustrate that no problem is too big for biotechnology to solve. Current methods to control diseases like Malaria and Dengue using insecticides and mosquito nets have shown only limited effectiveness pushing some of the biggest investors to fund the more radical, yet more effective approaches.
There are certainly downsides of this methodology being foreseen by various sects of people, including the researchers themselves. The main cause for concern is the probable ecological imbalance of killing all mosquitoes in an area and ethical issues such as potential misuse of the technology by terrorists. However, these concerns could be true for any new scientific discovery and should not lower the confidence and enthusiasm of the public or government, since the benefits and possibilities are far-reaching.
Further Readings :
- http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v34/n1/full/nbt.3439.html [Original Work]
- http://www.pnas.org/content/112/49/E6736 [Original Work]
- http://bit.ly/1QEoU3j [Simple Introduction]
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LdVQ1P1CXbE [An in-depth talk]