Written by Samantha O’Loughlin, Target Malaria

(This is the five of a series of six posts about common gene drive misconceptions)

In my work as a population genetics expert for Target Malaria, more often than not I am asked about the possibility of misusing gene drive technology, and especially if it could be leveraged for bioterrorism.

Gene drive systems are not like an infection; they work in a very targeted way and can only spread to offspring through mating. This means that gene drives can only be used in plants and animals, not bacteria or viruses. In addition, gene drive would have a very slow impact on an organism with a long generation time, such as humans.

It is very difficult to imagine how it could be used to cause deliberate harm. Maybe one could try to eradicate a species that is important in an ecosystem? Or maybe one could try to engineer a mosquito that spreads a new disease? Even if you could identify such an organism (in the former case), or could find a way to achieve the latter, given the huge technical difficulties and costs in developing gene drive organisms, it seems far-fetched to me that they would be used by terrorists, particularly when they have many easier, cheaper and more efficient options available to them.

Other posts of the myth-busting series are: Gene drive equals CRISPR, Gene drive is easy, Gene drive will spread globally and Gene drive will cause species extinctions.