First German-led prospective technology assessment of gene drives

GeneTip project publishes initial results

13. August 2019

19 August 2019 / The GeneTip research project was a joint enterprise carried out from 2017 until 2019 by the Universities of Bremen and Vechta, the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna and Testbiotech, Munich. The researchers focussed mainly on risks associated with the uncontrolled spread into the environment of newly designed genetically engineered organisms. In particular, the project examined plants and animals with a so-called gene-drive. The researchers included two detailed case studies, one with genetically engineered olive flies and one with oilseed rape, to substantiate the issues.

The project was funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and coordinated by the University of Bremen. A presentation of the results has now been published in German, giving a detailed overview of the technical characteristics of gene drives as well as associated risks.

Gene drives are designed to spread genetically engineered organisms rapidly through natural populations. In populations with sexual reproduction, genetic characteristics are normally distributed with a 50% probability to the offspring. The gene drive mechanism, however, interferes with process of natural inheritance, aiming to pass on new genetic information to almost 100% of the following generations. There are ongoing debates about using gene drives to combat insects such as mosquitoes (vector-borne diseases) and fruit flies (agricultural pests), or rodents such as mice and rats (invasive species). The aim is to suppress or eradicate the target species within a region or to replace it with genetically engineered populations.

Until now, in most cases the aim has been to prevent as far as possible the spread of genetically engineered organisms. Now, however, gene drive organisms can resp. are designed to persist and propagate in the environment within natural populations over longer periods of time. This brings with it unprecedented risks: new unintended characteristics can emerge in following generations. In addition, a high degree of exposure means there needs to be a presumption of unpredictable interactions with ecosystems. Therefore, comprehensive prospective technology characterisation and assessment of associated risks are vital.

As the results of GeneTip show, the technical and biological characteristics of the organisms, including their ability to persist and become invasive, are decisive for the dynamics of the targeted populations and their potential for gene flow to other species. In addition, there may be distinct interactions with the environment and the ecosystems in which the organisms propagate and spread.

In July 2019, the first pre-experiments for the release of gene drive mosquitoes started in Burkina Faso. The insects released were genetically engineered, but had no gene drive and were not intended to propagate. These trials were meant to enhance the acceptance of future releases. However, there were already serious concerns about the experimental releases, including within the targeted region. The releases were funded with the help of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The GeneTip project results show that serious scientific concerns could be identified even at an early stage of the technical developments. Uncertainties and limits of knowledge are high hurdles in regard to the precautionary principle, which can make it necessary to limit or prevent environmental releases.

Christoph Then, Tel. + 49 (0) 151 54638040,

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