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Synthetic Biology in Cambridge

Sculpting evolution? A multidisciplinary workshop explores regulatory, legal and ethical perspectives of gene drive

Gene drives are systems that enable genes to spread rapidly within entire populations. They are powerful tools that potentially allow society to engineer evolution but, like many other human actions, carry social, legal, ethical and environmental implications. An interdisciplinary workshop in Cambridge convened to discuss these implications in the UK context.

Gene drive systems do exist in nature, and some have already been used to, for example, make mosquito populations unable to transmit dengue virus though introducing a bacteria that drives through populations, but these systems have limited uses. The focus at this workshop was on synthetic gene drive systems that use cutting edge techniques (e.g., the gene editing tool CRISPR/Cas9) and can, in theory, be used to spread custom-made genes in many different organisms. This technology could be used in many scenarios including, medical, agricultural and conservational purposes.

Against this backdrop, the Synthetic Biology SRI, Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, Centre for Law, Medicine and Life Sciences and the Centre for Science and Policy co-organised a workshop in Cambridge on 18 October to look at regulatory, legal and ethical perspectives of this technology. Attendees were drawn from a variety of organisations that may play a role in shaping UK and EU policy, including: academics in the natural and social sciences; government agencies like Defra, HSE and Dstl; learned societies such as the Royal Society and Royal Society of Biology; and, experts from the EU and other European national bodies.

Presentations & Discussions

Synthetic biologist Dr Kevin Esvelt (MIT Media Lab) started proceedings by introducing his work on gene drive systems. Amongst other innovations, Esvelt and colleagues have developed a gene drive system that could rapidly spread malaria resistance in mosquito populations.

Other speakers presented on regulatory, legal and ethical issues surrounding the use of gene drive technologies, leading to robust discussions on themes including: governance and how to engage with multiple publics; potential legislative and regulatory changes; and, the responsibility of different actors from scientists to policy makers.

Discussion at the workshop revealed different opinions on many topics. One such topic was the question of whether legislation covering laboratory use of gene drive needs to be amended to provide extra protection against inadvertent release of gene drive organisms. One view was that extra protection was needed due to the relative ease of synthesising gene drives and the scope for major population level changes in the event of an accidental release. A contrasting view was that modifications to guidelines and norms of the scientific community will be as effective as new legislation.


Next steps

The diversity of perspectives and opinions at the workshop gave much food for thought and a report is being drafted for public release. The report will guide the organisers’ future research in this area and, hopefully, assist other organisations’ assessments of gene drive.