The year 2019 was very busy for global policy on gene drive, and 2020 will not be any different. Next year is marked by two milestones that will shape biodiversity policies and actions for the next coming decades, and in doing so shape the research environment on gene drive: the IUCN World Conservation Congress (WCC) and the adoption of the CBD Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. Synthetic biology is among the topics that will be under intense negotiations in both policy fronts. In fact, it already is.

2019 has been a year of preparation for these two milestones. Numerous regional and thematic consultations took place to inform the negotiations at the IUCN and CBD levels. This year also saw the launch of relevant reports that will, directly or indirectly, continue to shape perceptions and discussions of gene drive research. The IPBES’ report, WHO World Malaria Report, The Lance Commission’s report on Malaria and IUCN report on synthetic biology are a few of them.

Researchers from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) have characterized three genes associated with Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes’ resistance to insecticides used in malaria control. According to findings, overexpression of the three genes (Cyp6m2, Cyp6p3 and Gste2) leads to resistance to all major insecticide classes currently applied to combat the disease – pyrethroids, carbamates, organochlorines, and organophosphates. The overexpression of just one of these genes already confers resistance to representatives of at least one type of the insecticides listed.

For the study, Dr. Adriana Adolfi and her team created genetically modified mosquitoes that overexpressed specific genes that were already previously detected by the group as potential causes of acquiring insecticide resistance. These mosquitoes can be used to test new insecticides that, once incorporated to bed nets and sprays, can potentially recover the effectiveness of these tools.

Increasing resistance in mosquitoes to pyrethroids, a common insecticide used in bed nets, is one of the factors responsible for a recent stagnation in the decline of malaria infections and deaths. In some parts of Africa, malaria cases and victims are even rising due to the eroding efficacy of this critical malaria tool.

Scientists have developed an insecticide formulation that interferes with the mechanisms mosquitoes use to defeat pyrethroids. A study conducted in Uganda with over 23,000 children proved that the innovation is capable of significantly restoring the efficacy of pyrethroids. The new bed nets use a higher concentration of piperonyl butoxide (PBO), a chemical that obstructs the enzymes mosquitoes employ to limit the effects of pyrethroids.

A new study from the Genetic Biocontrol of Invasive Rodents (GBIRd) program partners identified knowledge gaps and opportunities for further research in the field of gene drive for conservation purposes, in particular to control invasive alien species in islands. The publication, led by researchers from North Carolina State University, focuses on what is currently known about natural and developing synthetic gene drive systems in mice, taking the house mouse (Mus musculus) as its primary species. The paper also explores findings in a variety of disciplines that could contribute to reducing knowledge gaps, emphasising the need for a multidisciplinary approach to assess the benefits and risks of gene drive effectively and responsibly.

Members and non-members of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) can now consult the 120 motions accepted for debate and potentially adoption during the 2020 IUCN World Conservation Congress. However, only members can participate in the online discussions from December 2019 to March 2020 and vote for their approval from April to May 2020.

From the perspective of gene drive research, the most relevant motion under discussion is the Principles on synthetic biology and biodiversity conservation (075). Among the principles listed are free, prior and informed consent, multidisciplinary dialogue including conservationists and synthetic biologists, and the need to consider indigenous knowledge and scientific evidence during risk assessments and decision-making process.