Recent environmental or economic impacts. Potential dangers might include

            Recent development of unique tools in genetic engineering
and synthetic biology have unlocked previously unimaginable power for the
researchers who wield them. The ethical and ecological implications of these
tools demand a careful examination of the abilities and dangers they present. Here
I will examine both the capabilities of this technology, and the risks that it
presents. Are these genetic tools an apocalyptic disaster waiting to happen? Or
are they a useful tool that conservationists can add to their collection?

Introduction

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The
genetic engineering of organisms is a rapidly growing field, with no shortage
of environmental, ethical, and political controversy (Calloway 2016.) Recent
development of technologies such as CRiSPR/Cas9, and the gene-drive (Marcias,
Ohm, & Rasgon 2017) raised yet more issues. Release of genetically-modified
organisms into the world at large has been seen as leading to potential
environmental or economic impacts. Potential dangers might include ecological
disequilibrium from the loss or sudden invasiveness of a species, (Rodriguez
2016,) or agricultural ‘super-weeds’ which are resistant to common herbicides
(Hoffman 1990.) If the use of genetically modified plants and animals are used
at all, the risk of accidental release and potential subsequent globalization
is virtually inevitable (Marcias 2017.) With this in mind, some applications of
recent biotechnology have a remarkable capacity to be useful tools if released intentionally.

Corletti
(2017) suggests that invasive species could be combatted by breeding in a
deleterious trait, potentially reducing the population or exterminating it
altogether. Kalajdiz & Schetelig (2017) demonstrated that such a
modification could be possible. They argue that sterilizing insects through gene-editing
would allow an environmentally friendly pest control method, where traditional
methods had failed. However this still requires the individual breeding and
modification of insect generations, as an infertility gene would be difficult
to inherit. Hammond et al. (2015) offer a potential solution to this
heritability problem in their own quest to reduce transmission rates of malaria
mosquitoes. By introducing a haplosufficient female infertility gene, which
would act recessively to only induce infertility in homozygote females, the
gene could have a chance to propagate in a wild population. In addition to
this, they can make use of a gene-drive to induce hyper mendelian inheritance. A
gene-drive is a system by which an ongoing and inheritable version of a
CRiSPR/Cas9 gene insertion enzyme is included in the genome of the target
creature itself. This gene target germline cells, and effectively increase
inheritance from 50%, to close to 100%.

In
addition to fighting disease and combatting invasive species, another potential
use for releasing gene-edited organisms into the wild is the field of
resurrection biology. This recent field seeks to chaperone the reintroduction
of such species as the passenger pigeon, the Yangtze river dolphin, or even the
moa and the wooly mammoth (Martinelli, Oksanen, & Siipi 2014.) Martinelli
cautions that the generation of these species, or species much like them, could
act as a reservoir for viruses that can be harmful to other animals. Additionally,
as the environment has continued to change, the de-extinction of species could
lead to invasive behavior in what was once their normal environment. Martinelli
also suggests that the ability to resurrect long dead species might diminish
humanity’s willingness to conserve existing species. Martinelli points out that
the ethics of resurrection might not be limited to simply ecological harm, she
reminds us that the Neanderthal genome has recently been fully sequenced (Green
et al. 2010.)

All
of these potential uses raise ethical questions of course, but none more so
then gene-drives themselves, leading to the fierce debates about their use
(Calloway 2016.) In a recent United Nations biodiversity summit, a proposal for
a complete moratorium on the use of gene-drives at all was narrowly defeated.
Researchers claim that a moratorium would hurt efforts to reign in gene-drives,
and prevent the opportunity to study them and understand their risks. Alternate
suggestions from experts in the field that oppose the moratorium, suggest a
mandatory registry of gene-drive experiments, or an isolated region where they
might be tested without risk.

Genetically
modified organisms in an agricultural sense do have an analog to
human-influenced changes in agriculture. Many of the domesticated plants we use
are highly modified versions of ancient strands. Despite the huge amount of
domesticated crop plants, Ellistrand et al. (2010) were able to only find
thirteen instances of an invasive plant from a domesticated ancestor, the vast
majority of these had undergone “de-domestication.” Indicating that human
meddling may change a plant, but the traits we add are not always as
advantageous in the context of the wild as we would imagine.

Marcias
(2017) notes that both CRiSPR and gene-drives are powerful technologies, where
high level of care must be used when working with them, but that major concerns
raised about their use, such as off-target effects, are not issues that are
limited to these technologies alone. Corlett (2017) points out that the fierce
backlash against agricultural genetically modified organisms occurs despite the
absence of evidence that the risks are any greater than with other changes in
agricultural practices. She acknowledge, that risks are greater and on a different
scale with gene edited animals as compared to plants.

Finally,
a recent paper indicates that the potential for unleashed gene-drives may not
be as serious a threat as once feared. Unckless et al (2017) shows strong
evidence that modified organisms with a gene-drives carrying a negative trait
will inevitably develop a resistance to the gene-drive itself. This was found
to occur in large populations quickly, and would extend even to smaller
populations, as the gene-drive must effectively race an organism’s own repair
mechanism with each use.

Conclusion

            CRiSPR/Cas9 technology offers a powerful tool for the use
of ecological conservation, but even without direct evidence that it is any
more dangerous than early forms of genetic change, such as breeding, radiation,
or artificial selection, great caution must be used when working with this
tool. Whether used to protect against a disease, eradicate a harmful invasive
creature, or bring back species once thought long-dead, this tool can be used
carefully for great results, or it can be used with malice or ignorance, and
cause a disaster.