BERKELEY, Calif. — Does destroying a species on “a continental scale” using genetic manipulation sound like a good idea?
Some scientists at the University of California’s Berkeley and Riverside campuses seem to think so, as they are working on a genetic engineering technology that would do just that. Called “multiplexing,” a new study finds the technique is being tested as a way to eliminate mosquito species that transmit Zika, dengue, and malaria.
“The potential of multiplexing is vast. With one guide RNA, we could suppress a room of mosquitoes. With four, we could potentially suppress a continent and the diseases they transmit,” says John Marshall, the study’s lead author and assistant professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, in a press release.
To achieve this possibly world-altering effect, the researchers are expanding on the now somewhat well-known gene editing technology called CRISPR, which was originally developed at UC Berkeley.
“CRISPR is a technology for changing the sequence of DNA in cells in a precise fashion,” Doudna explains in the video. “…[I]t’s going to enable a lot of science to be done that was impossible to do in the past.”
In their latest study, Marshall and his colleagues looked at using CRISPR for homing-based gene drive systems, which change how genetic traits are passed from parent to offspring.
More particularly, the study looked at using a type of “homing system architecture in which guide RNAs are multiplexed.”
In simpler terms, Marshall said they are experimenting with disrupting a gene required for fertility in female mosquitoes at multiple sites all at once. He said this makes it harder for the mosquitoes to evolve their way past the intervention.
“As a result, you can suppress a much larger population,” he says. “It’s much the same as combination drug therapy, but for CRISPR-based gene drive.”
According to the authors, the concept of using homing-based gene drive systems to eliminate wild populations was first proposed in 2003 by Austin Burt, a professor of evolutionary genetics at Imperial College in London.
Though intended for use against mosquitoes, the researchers have first tested the system on fruit flies.
While using CRISPR for widespread elimination or suppression of a species has many elicited concern from many, others see more reason for concern in not using the technology.
According to a recent article in The Guardian, Bill Gates said mosquito-borne illness “poses a greater threat to humankind than global war.”
And so with the support of major philanthropists like Gates, the researchers push onward with the technology that has the potential to suppress entire species.
“But nature has a knack for finding a way around hurdles,” Marshall says of the research. “So assessing that potential will require a lot more work.”
The study was published recently in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.
Want to know more about CRISPR? This episode of the popular science podcast Radiolab offers more in-depth exploration of the technology’s potential upsides and downsides. The episode, updated earlier this year to reflect recent developments, notes the technology has “the potential to not only change human evolution, but every organism on the entire planet.”