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Genetic tool that can condemn a species in the UN review

PARIS : For some, a new cutting-edge technology called genetic drive is the silver bullet capable of eliminating invasive species that decimate the island's wildlife and eradicate malaria-carrying mosquitoes that killed nearly half a million of people last year, especially in Africa.

Others fear that the genetic engineering process is a one-way ticket to ecological chaos, or that health and conservation objectives are hiding industrial and military objectives.

Defenders and critics confront in Montreal this week in a dark working group under the Convention on Biological Diversity, a 1992 UN treaty forged as a bulkhead against the increasing rate of extinction on our planet.

The Ad-Hoc Committee of Technical Experts on synthetic biology, known as AHTEG, is tasked with understanding the increasingly powerful ability of science to manipulate genomes, and reporting to the 195 member states of the Convention .

That both sides of the gene unit debate may have to go The arguments in the cover show how little is known about this technology, or what might happen if it is ever released into the natural world.

However, one side clearly has more resources.

A handful of sponsors, including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have invested several hundred million dollars in genetic drive research over the past two years.

Emerging Ag consultancy Emerging Ag said the Gates Foundation paid US $ 1.6 million (RM6.51 million) dollars this summer to roll back a moratorium on the investigation convened last December by more than 100 NGOs.

"The goal was to reach policy makers," Isabelle Cloche, vice president for strategy at Emerging Ag, said AFP .

Gene drive technology works by forcing the hand of evolution, ensuring that an engineering trait is passed on to a greater proportion of offspring, through many generations, than would have happened naturally.

Imagine that the trait in question is being masculine.

In a species that reproduces rapidly, the result will be a cascading reduction of the population, or even extinction.

Dashed hope

The genetic drive was first identified as a potential savior for animals decimated by non-native species, such as rodents and mosquitoes, in a 2014 study aimed by the scientist Kevin Esvelt.

"Reducing populations of environmentally and economically destructive invasive species" was one of the many "compelling opportunities" offered by technology, he and his colleagues wrote at that time.

Today, Esvelt says he was wrong to awaken the hopes of conservationists, and that the unbridled drive of genes is too dangerous to be used for that purpose.

"You should never build and release a self-propagating system, or really any type of system, that is capable of definitely expanding beyond the target population," he told AFP .

"And that discards inv The control of the asivas species, because there is always a native population somewhere".

But Esvelt does not exclude more limited forms of genetic activation, or other objectives, especially the eradication of mosquito-borne diseases in humans.

In that case, he points out, "their target population is each mosquito of that species."

Target Malaria, a nonprofit research consortium supported by the Gates Foundation, is leveraging gene-editing technology to eliminate malaria-transmitting mosquitoes in sub-Saharan Africa.

"Imposing a moratorium on such promises, innovations that save lives and improve life so early in its development would be unjustified, harmful and irresponsible," the group said last December in response to the moratorium.

Todd Kuiken, a researcher at North Carolina State University and a member of AHTEG, agrees.

"From a scientific perspective, putting a general moratorium on the research of gene transfer simply does not make sense to me," he said AFP . "You can not learn anything if you can not study"

Accidental misuse

But Kuiken does mark the limit when it comes to army funds.

When his university received a donation of $ 6.4 million from Darpa to participate in a program aimed at invasive rodents, he chose to abandon it.

"It is possible that Darpa's work is tilting the entire field of synthetic biology towards military applications," Kuiken said.

Their concern is shared by AHTEG member Jim Thomas of the ETC Group, an NGO that monitors new technologies that often get ahead of regulatory frameworks.

"The fact that the development of genetic drives is being funded and structured mainly by the US Darpa's spokesman, Jared Adams, said that the approach of the US military was primarily one of caution against" risks that arise from the rapid development and democratization "of gene editing tools"

"This convergence of low cost and high availability means that applications for the editing of genes – both positive and negative – could arise from people or states that operate outside the traditional scientific community and international standards, "he said. AFP by email.

Adams recognized a "theoretical estimate" of approximately US $ 100 million in project funds, substantially more than the US $ 65 million in grants announced in July.

"It is up to Darpa to carry out this research and develop technologies that can protect against accidental and intentional misuse," he added. – AFP

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