Gene drive mechanisms (or gene drives) cause a gene to spread throughout a population at a rate higher than would normally occur. Scientists have been observing examples of biased inheritance generated by natural gene drive mechanisms for many years. However, significant advances in genetic and molecular tools for genome editing have brought synthetic gene drive technology within the reach of many more researchers, and research has accelerated greatly in recent years. Since 2015, scientists have published four proof of concept studies in yeast, mosquitoes and the fruit fly Drosophila to demonstrate the feasibility of using synthetic gene drives for purposes such as combating vector-borne disease, suppressing pest populations, or for introducing desired characteristics into target organisms. As with many new technologies, the potential applications and benefits are far reaching, as are the potential impacts—both intended and unintended—on public health, conservation and ecology. This rapidly developing area represents an additional method of manipulating populations alongside traditional and other methods (Table 1).

The pace at which the gene drive research is moving has triggered international discussion (for example, Nuffield, 2016; NAS, 2016a). The scientific community has raised concerns as to when organisms modified with synthetic gene drives should be released, and there is significant discussion amongst scientists regarding best practice and strategies to manage and mitigate any hazards involved (Akbari et al., 2015; Oye et al., 2014).

To inform government and community consideration of these issues, this discussion paper by the Australian Academy of Science considers synthetic gene drives in a specifically Australian context and highlights the potential benefits and hazards of possible applications, emphasising the need to eventually consider these within a risk assessment framework. The paper discusses environmental hazards, social and economic issues (including trade implications) and how the technology can be managed within Australia’s governance arrangements. Our unique Australian environment generates a number of issues specific to our country; the Academy intends this discussion paper to complement the international discussion underway and to inform Australian governments and our community about gene drives in Australia.

The Australian Academy of Science recommends that:

  1. There continues to be clear and transparent communication of governance arrangements regarding regulation of synthetic gene drives.
  2. Resources be provided to study synthetic gene drives in isolated laboratory populations with sample sizes and time frames that are large enough and/or long enough to observe processes such as selection, resistance evolution, population structuring and transmission distortion, together with the intended and potentially unintended consequences that these process may lead to.
  3. Stringent, multiple containment measures be taken when researching synthetic gene drives.
  4. Any decision to release a synthetic gene drive continues to be made on a case-by-case basis following a comprehensive environmental risk assessment which includes ecological and evolutionary modelling.
  5. There be clear communication and consultation with the public through appropriate channels from the earliest stages of gene drive research, particularly with affected communities.
  6. The wider implications of synthetic gene drives (e.g. trade implications) be considered.
Table 1: Description of various methods of biological manipulation of populations.

Method of manipulation Description Biological control A method of controlling invasive weeds and pests using their own natural predators or parasites against them. Successful Australian examples include the control of prickly pear and skeleton weed. This approach is itself not without risk, as demonstrated by the well-known case of the cane toad in northern Australia. Plant breeding A systematic method of selecting plants with desirable characteristics for further breeding. It may include crossing closely related plant species to produce new crop varieties, or the use of chemicals or radiation to randomly generate mutants that happen to display desirable traits. Animal breeding As for plant breeding, this method aims to establish a line of animals with specific traits based on selective breeding, although related species are less commonly crossed and animals are less commonly exposed to radiation and mutagenic chemicals for this purpose. Gene technology This is a broad term that includes a variety of genetic manipulation techniques that are used to alter an organism’s DNA. Gene therapy An application of gene technology involving the introduction of corrective genes to replace defective or missing genes to treat genetic disorders, usually in humans. Synthetic gene drive An application of gene technology that increases the prevalence of a genetic variant within a population. Natural gene drive mechanisms are also known; these are sometimes harnessed for manipulating populations without the use of gene technology.

© 2020 Australian Academy of Science