Gene drives or gene bombs

September 2016
Photo: Creative Commons
Earlier this year, the latest and most sinister variant of genetic engineering yet, the gene drive, hit the headlines [1].

When artificial DNA is linked to a gene drive in a plant or animal, it will engineer any DNA it pairs up with and create a genetic change which is passed on to 99 percent of the offspring. The GMO version will rapidly become ubiquitous in the population.

The gene drive process has been dubbed the "mutagenic chain reaction". If this sounds reminiscent of the nuclear chain reaction which generates the awesome destructive power of the atom bomb, the analogy's not far off. Indeed, the first commercial application of the gene drive has been self-destruct mosquitoes. By design, or by accident, genetic changes forcing themselves rapidly and permanently throughout any plant or animal population could have global consequences. The threats to food security, human health, environmental stability and biodiversity, of a 'remedial' artificial gene-driven gene gone wrong could be catastrophic. The consequences of gene-drives doing what they're meant to do in the controlling hands of commercial interests or terrorists could be even worse.

Crop-plants with novel traits for more efficient breeding, such as male sterility, were one of the first applications of GM. Gene-drives could be used, for example, for super-fast generation of different GM strains. These would present all the same health and environmental concerns as old-fashioned GM but multiplied many fold. Gene pollution from pollen, seed-spillage and volunteer plants in later crops would be driven through whatever population of relatives they found their way into.

Obliterating whole plant or animal sectors of an ecosystem reduces the diversity needed for its stability, health and resilience.

Reflecting the gravity of the implications of gene-drives, the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) was quickly commissioned to prepare a report.

The purpose of NAS 'Gene Drives on the Horizon' was to review the current science and approaches to unintended harm from gene drives, to discuss ethical, legal, and social aspects of gene-drive field releases, and to determine the adequacy of existing governance and risk assessments.

The Report has been praised for spelling out the scope of the hazards which could attach to environmental engineering using gene-drives. It's also refreshingly clear about the inadequacy of existing regulations to deal with gene-drives.

Like the media, which have been primed to divert public attention into the suggested use of gene-drives to wipe out mosquitoes and so solve the Zika virus problem, the NAS report follows suit and devotes very limited attention to the two biggest uses to which gene-drives will be put in practice, namely agriculture and military. These pose the greatest immediate threat to human health. However, the reason for their cursory treatment may lie in the interests of the main funders of the Report, the Gates Foundation (well-known for its philanthropic, but gung-ho push for gene technology use in developing countries) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (a US military agency known to be steaming ahead with gene-drive and synthetic organism research).


Excellent in many ways, it's disappointing that, rather than thinking through the possibility of direct harm to health from gene-driven food or terrorist-inspired gene-driven disease or gene-driven crop devastation, the NAS report views public concerns about gene technology as irrational and seems to consider that the main issue to be addressed is public feeling and opinions. 

The NAS is also quick to dismiss the use of gene-drives in microbes because the technique works only during sexual reproduction which is rare in microbes. However, the gene-drive is a mechanism lodged in the genome for the purpose of altering other DNA: the creation of pathogens with a gene-drive variant which can make harmful alterations to our DNA doesn't seem too far fetched. 

International recognition of the dangers of gene-drives and regulation are urgent. Join Friends of the Earth's call to use the platforms already available to do this: the Convention on Biodiversity, the UN Environmental Modification Convention treaty, the Biological Weapons Convention.


[1] GENE-DRIVEN INSECTS - April 2016

  • Gene Drives on the Horizon: Advancing Science, Navigating Uncertainty , and Aligning Research with Public Values, National Academy of Sciences Report,, June 2016
  • Antonio Regalado, Meet the Moralist Policing Gene Drives, a technology That Messes with Evolution, MIT Technology Review, 7.06.16
  • Dana Peris, Friends of the Earth, Permanently changing a species: What could go wrong? GM Watch, 9.06.16
  • Stop the Gene Bomb! ETC Group (Erosion, Technology and Concentration) comment, GM Watch, 8.06.16
  • Jim Thomas, ETC Group programme director, The National Academies' Gene Drive study has ignored important and obvious issues, The Guardian, 9.06.16

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