Gene drive is a genetic phenomenon that occurs in nature and causes a selected trait to spread rapidly through a species via sexual reproduction over several generations. Gene drive works by increasing the likelihood that a modified gene will be inherited by its offspring. Normally, genes have a 50/50 chance of being inherited, but gene drive systems could increase that chance to upwards of 99 percent. This means that over the course of several generations, a selected trait could become increasingly common within a specific species.
Researchers have been studying how to harness gene drives to solve some of society’s most intractable problems for a long time. Public health and ecosystem conservation are two of the main areas where research has focused, although other uses are also possible.
- Public health: Several proposals have been made which would use gene drive to limit the spread of diseases, particularly those spread by insect vectors, such as malaria, which affect several hundred million people a year. This could be done by inserting a trait a which makes the vector organism unable to host the pathogen, or one which affects the local population dynamics of the host organism to reduce that population.
- Conservation: Potential applications of gene drive in this field could enable the elimination of introduced invasive species which threaten native ecosystems or that carry infectious diseases that put the survival of other species at risk. This is for example being considered to manage rat populations on islands, where as an invasive species, they undermine the survival of many local animals and birds and are the primary cause of extinctions.