Synthetic biology potentially offers solutions to some of our most intractable environmental problems, such as air and water pollution, biodiversity loss, or even to reduce the effect of climate change on food production. A new article from the Earth Institute at Columbia University explores several synbio technologies in place or under research, including the use of gene drive for environmental conservation purposes.

Non-native invasive species are the second highest cause of biodiversity loss globally. As a result of human activity, mice have become one of the major ecosystem pests, invading almost all landmass on the planet. Current methods to eradicate them, such as chemical toxicants and bait stations, have several limitations in terms of costs, efficacy and feasibility.

Scientists worldwide are exploring new approaches to eradicate these invasive rodents. Recently, it was suggested the use of a synthetic gene drive called t-Sry that targets male fertility as one tool to eliminate target mouse populations. But mice are not monogamous, with females mating with different males over their lifespan. So how would this affect the effectiveness of such a gene drive, which targets male fertility instead of female fertility?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) released its new report on strategic priorities for malaria. The report’s emphasis on the need for more investment in research and development is an important and positive development. Noting that today less than 1% of global funding for health research and development investment goes to developing tools to tackle malaria, the authors called for focused efforts to develop “transformative tools and knowledge”. However, the report’s simultaneous acknowledgement that it is currently not possible to set a timeframe for the eradication of malaria is a sobering reminder of the complexity of the task ahead.

More details about the report are available at Reuters. To download the report visit the WHO website.

Written by Aaron Roberts, Institute on Ethics & Policy for Innovation at McMaster University

Gene drive technology is being explored as a durable and cost-effective biocontrol tool for elimination of malaria in Africa. Some critics consider this novel technology, by its very nature, to be an overly risky method for reducing or eliminating malaria.

The most common, and reasonable concern I have heard is about the potential for ecological harm. It is true, the technology has not yet been tested under natural (out of the lab) conditions. The question is whether testing in the wild should proceed, after conducting rigorous safety and efficacy testing in controlled cage conditions, and after receiving the proper regulatory approvals. After all, even if field tests to discover whether the technology is efficacious in the wild proceed and prove successful, those concerned argue that such a release may also result in unintended ecological consequences. The existence of these unknowns has prompted some to call for a global moratorium on research and development of gene drive technology.

Something we must always keep in mind when assessing novel technologies and methods is that it does not make ethical sense to do so in a vacuum. There is a very human tendency to fear the unknown above even terrible certainties – as it is sometimes colloquially said, “Better the devil you know.” This is called a status quo bias. But no decision is made outside of a given context, and ethics demands that context be taken into consideration as we make our decisions.

The Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group (AHTEG) on Socio-Economic Considerations is now selecting new experts to serve on the group. Parties from all regions, other governments, relevant organizations, indigenous peoples and local communities interested in nominating experts must submit an official letter and a curriculum vitae that indicates their relevant expertise. Nominees are also required to complete the interest disclosure form. The COP-MOP Bureau will help select the new members. The application deadline is 6 of September. More details about the process are available here. The next meetings of this AHTEG will be in Vienna, Austria, from 10 to 13 of December.

If you are interested in this topic, you can also follow the expert discussions on the Online Forum on Socio-Economic Considerations, which will take place from 9 to 20 of September. To be able to post on the online forum, you need to be a registered expert, but the discussions are public so anyone can follow them.