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An article in The Atlantic discussed gene drives and more specifically, their effect on a wild population.  Gene drives are a technology that can drive a trait throughout a population without being bound by inheritance.  Gene drives work by having a homing endonuclease that finds a specific sequence.  The gene drive then cuts this sequence out.  The cell wants to repair the chromosome so it copies the gene drive sequence onto the chromosome.  This results in the organism pushing it's unique trait encoded by the gene drive to almost 100% of its offspring.  It's offspring will also pass on the unique trait to nearly 100% of it's offspring.  Soon, the gene becomes widespread amongst a population.  Scientists use the gene-editing tool CRISPR to engineer gene drives.  The applications of gene drives are diverse and compelling.  Gene drives are currently being researched with respect to gene therapy in humans, or as the article focuses on: controlling mosquito populations.  Mosquito's are the most dangerous animal on earth, known for spreading West Nile and Malaria.  Gene drives can be inserted into mosquitoes to make them less effective at producing offspring which therefore would decrease their population until it would be so small that contracting malaria would be unlikely or gene drives can be inserted to make malaria uninhabitable in the mosquito.  Lab tests are promising, but they exist only on a small scale.  Researchers are using mathematical models to try to ascertain the effects on a wild population.  Aside from inserting a gene-drive into a wild population and seeing what happens (which would be highly unethical), mathematical models are the best-bet to get some idea of the ecological effects before enacting this controversial technique on any wide scale.  Most models result in one conclusion: the organism developing resistance to the gene drive.  The organism will overcome what we throw at it in order to survive.  It's also possible that malaria would mutate resistance to the mosquito and the mosquito would be able to carry it again.  The field is developing quickly and research is being done to consider what the ethical course of action is in relation to genetically engineering wild species with gene drives.

I found this article incredibly fascinating because it's implications are endless.  A world without Malaria might not be too far off and that prospect is truly amazing.  This research could change lives for millions of people and I am excited to see where it goes in the future.

 

Borel, Brooke. "When Evolution Fights Back Against Genetic Engineering." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 12 Sept. 2016. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

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  1. Absolutely fascinating! Especially as you said, the implications are endless, and not just limited to use against malaria. It seems from the article that the primary challenge in using gene drives to combat malaria is overcoming the problem of natural resistance - either from mosquitoes against the gene drive, or, more troublingly, from the malaria parasite itself. I can see why researchers are weary of deploying this technique outside the lab as an adapted malaria parasite could potentially be more aggressive in humans, similarly to how bacterial strains can adapt resistance to antibiotic treatment and become more dangerous to patients. I wonder if researchers will ever be able to essentially "outsmart evolution" and develop gene drive technology that evolutionary adaptions can't overcome?