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Conservation vs. Genetics: Scientists Debate the Ethics of DNA Research, Gene Drives

Sep 08, 2016 04:00 AM EDT

Even in the scientific community, things aren't so cut and dried. Debates over the ethics of changing the natural world have been getting louder due to the increasingly advanced techniques involved in gene drives.

According to a report from Phys Org, gene drives are a type of study that ensures a certain trait is passed from parent to offspring. There are several projects in the works that qualify as gene drives -- or at least something with similar effects of altering the environment.

Wiping Out Species for Animal Conservation

One project being considered is releasing a number of altered mice in islands so that they will only produce male offspring. Eventually, this will lead to the death of the entire species. A similar one aims to save the lives of endangered birds in Hawaii with altered mosquitoes that cannot carry avian malaria.

University of Hawaii scientist Floyd Reed calls "gene drives" diverse, pointing out that the effects could be drastic like transforming an entire species.

"These should be treated extremely cautiously," he said. "And there are other types of population modification genetic technology that are safer, geographically self limiting, and reversible."

A Controversial Ethical Dilemma

Dozens of environmentalists and scientists have signed an open letter calling for gene drive technologies to be halted, pointing to the "obvious dangers of irretrievably releasing genocidal genes into the natural world."

However, the opposing side also has a compelling argument in acting quickly to save the dying species from diseases and invasive species.

Kevin Esvelt, Massachusetts Institute of Technology assistant professor and one of the proponents of gene editing, is aware of the ethical dilemmas involved in this particular field of study. One of his suggestions to mitigate the possible dangers of gene drives is to inform the public before embarking on a potentially life-changing project.

"If something goes wrong in the laboratory, it can affect people outside the laboratory," Esvelt explained. "That means if you do it behind closed doors-as is traditional in science-then you are not giving people a voice in a decision that might affect them."

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