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Gene drive made in Göttingen

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Much concern has been expressed about  an experiment involving genetically engineered flies and the potential risk of uncontrolled release into the environment

The issue

In a press release, Testbiotech, the Gene-ethical Network and and a German small farmers’  organisation (Arbeitsgemeinschaft bäuerliche Landwirtschaft, AbL) inform readers that they have sent a joint letter to the state government of Lower Saxony calling for clarification and information on research into genetically engineered insects. The letter was sent after Ernst Wimmer from the Department of Developmental Biology at the University of Gottingen disclosed that experiments were being carried out with genetically engineered flies in a laboratory that apparently did not fulfil the necessary safety standards.

The genetic engineering

The flies are genetically engineered in such a way that their artificial genes can spread rapidly throughout the populations – a so-called gene drive. A gene drive is created using the CRISPR-Cas nuclease to insert DNA into the genome. The so-called DNA scissor cuts into the genome at a defined site and inserts its own DNA, resulting in only the male offspring remaining fertile.

Unintended consequences

The experiment could lead to the decimation of the insect population and many experts are warning against the release of such organisms into the environment.

In their experiments, the researchers at the University of Göttingen wanted to investigate the reliability of self-replication of the gene drive in following generations. However, they discovered that there was an increased frequency of unintended mutations that rendered the gene drive increasingly ineffective and fertile female offspring were being born again. The conclusion is that using this kind of genome editing is not as predictable as often claimed.

Potential danger

The worry is what happens if the insects escape. With some being able to reproduce and cross-breed, the offspring would still be genetically engineered. There are, therefore, calls for the precautionary principle to be applied and no native species to be used in these experiments that could  cross-breed with genetically engineered insects and thereby spread into natural populations. As Christoph Then fromTestbiotech andChristoph Potthof from the Gene-ethical Networkpoint out, nobody can know what the consequences would be if those insects escaped.

The outcome

The research has been stopped. According to Wimmer, their laboratory safety standards were not sufficient to fulfil the official requirements. Wimmer, who has applied for a patent on genetically engineered insects, seems to believe that the required standards are not necessary. He is also of the opinion, with no scientific evidence, that his flies would not be as dangerous as thought by most of experts. Testbiotech and others are warning about the dangers of downplaying the risks.

The two organisations now aim to gather more information from the state authorities in Lower Saxony, who originally allowed these experiments. This includes information on which fly species was used, whether the experiments are really finished and if there are any plans for them to be recommenced.



Genetic Engineering

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