Thousands of scientists from around the world will be debating dozens of issues facing the planet at the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s 10-day conference in Honolulu, which kicks off Thursday.

While many of those World Conservation Congress discussions will explore the latest studies and management strategies, others will look at the ethical and moral responsibilities behind the proposed ways to address everything from climate change to endangered species.

The issue of gene drives, a new technology far more powerful than the genetic modification being used to engineer pest-resistant corn, will be part of that discourse and illustrates the challenge of trying to take advantage of advances in science without causing unintended and irrevocable consequences.

The endangered ‘Akeke’e, a greenish-yellow honeycreeper, is endemic to the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
The endangered ‘Akeke’e, a greenish-yellow honeycreeper, is endemic to Kauai. Courtesy: Jim Denny

Claire Cummings, an attorney, author and journalist, has been closely tracking the latest developments in gene drives and how the technology may be used in Hawaii to combat avian malaria in an effort to save endemic forest birds on the verge of extinction.

“We aren’t asking the right questions,” she said. “The technician or genetic engineer only asks: Does it work? We want to ask a more compelling question: What else does it do? We want to discuss the state of the science, the ecological and ethical issues, and the fact that there are no laws or regulations that can properly govern gene drives at this time.”

Steve Rissing, a biology professor at Ohio State University, explained gene drives and their potential to help — or hurt — mankind in a column last week in The Columbus Dispatch. He broke down the technology like this:

Gene drives are molecular mechanisms that tip the balance in otherwise random genetic events.

As it is with most organisms, we get one copy of each of the genes that make us human from our mothers and fathers. As parents, we also contribute only one of those genes to a child; the other parent provides the second gene copy.

Which of our two copies of each gene we provide a child is a toss-up. Often, it doesn’t matter; the two genes we inherited are identical. Sometimes the gene we provide a child does make a difference, determining a physical or behavior trait.

Now imagine a way to rig that usually random system and tilt the balance in favor of one copy of a gene over the other …

With gene drives, scientists can edit genes at the level of their individual DNA bases so that it’s no longer random what trait gets passed on to the offspring, which could allow people to control entire populations of species.

claire in taro patch
Writer and lawyer Claire Cummings, seen here in a taro patch in Hawaii, is serving on a panel that explores the role of gene drives in conservation. Courtesy: Claire Cummings

“We might be able to exploit our knowledge of these mechanisms to eliminate mosquito populations that carry Zika, dengue or chikungunya viruses,” Rissing wrote. “We might rescue endangered species by eliminating invasive competitors. But we also might make these situations worse with no ability to reverse the effects once released into the environment.”

Cummings, who has worked in Hawaii for more than 30 years, said that’s just part of her concern. It’s also about the fact that Hawaii may end up being the guinea pig again.

“Hawaii has long been used as a testing ground, by the military, by the agrochemical and biotechnology industry, and now by those who pose as conservationists promoting ‘silver bullet’ technologies,” she said. “Where is the concern for the entire ecological food chain, something Native Hawaiian traditional ecological knowledge takes into account? What would be the impact on farmers, nature lovers, and even tourists?”

Michael Samuel, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Wisconsin, told the MIT Technology Review in May that “the perfect place to experiment with these technologies is on an island.”

He has built computer models that show how climate change is threatening to make birds endemic to Hawaii go extinct.

The article notes how gene drives, which are being developed to address human malaria in Africa, might be used to completely eliminate mosquitoes in Hawaii by modifying a gene to spread when they reproduce that eventually kills them all.

“It would be nice to get rid of the mosquitoes,” ecologist Eben Paxton told the Technology Review. “Hawaii used to be a true bird paradise.”

Cummings is on one of two panels at the IUCN that will be exploring the role of gene drives in conservation. Information about her panel, to be held Monday, is available here; information on the other panel, set for Sunday, can be found here.

Cummings is also hosting a panel open to the general public Tuesday evening. It starts at 6 p.m. at Church of the Crossroads in Honolulu, and features Hokulei Lindsey, a Native Hawaiian advocate, Dana Perls, senior campaigner for Friends of the Earth, and Jim Thomas, program director for the ETC Group.

About the Author