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Longevity Briefs: New genetic systems for controlling gene drive technology

Posted on 21 September 2020

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Longevity briefs provides a short summary of a novel research, medicine, or technology that caught the attention of our researchers in Oxford, due to its potential to improve our health, wellbeing, and longevity.

Why is this research important: Gene drive technology has the potential to revolutionise the way we combat diseases which are passed from the animal host to humans, such as malaria.

What is gene drive technology?

Scientists can manipulate the genetic information of an organism via CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tool to prevent the spread of a disease, the gene drive then allows this genetic manipulation to be inherited through reproduction until it is present in every organism in that species, resulting in a species that is unable to infect others. For example, gene drive technology has been applied to populations of mosquitoes to render them unable to deliver the malaria virus to humans. Crucially, however, these investigations have only been carried out in labs, applying gene drives to wild populations is an altogether different question. Having the power to alter the genetics of an entire species carries the risk of changing delicate ecosystems in unpredictable and detrimental ways. This has led some scientists to look for ways to halt out-of-control genetic alterations.

What did the researchers do: Researchers at the University of San Diego have developed two novel genetic systems to do just that. The systems neutralize the gene drive within the target species by either mutating the Cas9 gene, thereby rendering it inactive, or by deleting the Cas9 gene from the genome completely. Cas9 is a protein that acts as a pair of molecular scissors which allows the gene drive to function. Importantly, the systems do not possess their own source of Cas9, therefore they will only spread as far as the gene drive itself and will not edit the wild type population.

Key takeaway(s) from this research: Gene drives could be an extremely effective weapon in the fight against malaria, and countless other diseases which are passed from an animal host. However, they are a double edged sword, releasing heritable genetic manipulation into wild populations could cause unforeseen damage. Having the means to control and halt this process gives us the insurance we need to explore gene drive potential.

These technologies are not perfect, but we now have a much more comprehensive understanding of why and how unintended outcomes influence their function and we believe they have the potential to be powerful gene drive control mechanisms should the need arise.

Emily Bulger, research associate at the University of San Diego and primary author. Source:

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