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Gene Editing Promising But Potentially Dangerous: Scientists

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In a new report, scientists said that while gene editing techniques hold great promise, they can also be potentially dangerous. As a result, they concluded that it's too early to release genetically altered organisms such as insects, plants and animals into the environment.

A new gene editing technique called "gene drive" combines the latest gene editing methods to make precise DNA changes. The practice involves using the gene drive, which is a DNA sequence that enables a genetic alteration to be inherited by an offspring more easily.

The new report was released by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine on Wednesday. The panel of scientists urged that groups should continue piloting lab experiments that use this new technique. They also endorsed the potential out-of-lab, "very controlled" experiments to study the gene-edited organisms.

"However, the potential benefits of gene drives for basic and applied research are significant and justify proceeding with laboratory research and highly-controlled field trials," the report said.

In the past decades, scientists were able to make genetic changes in several species. However, the new gene drive technique can quickly pass on these changes to an entire species easily. Other methods, including the CRISPR/cas-9 technology can also produce similar results.

The gene drive technique promises great things. For instance, it can be used to genetically alter mosquitoes so they will become incapable of carrying the parasite that causes malaria.

The new technique can potentially help fight other insect-borne diseases such as Lyme disease, dengue fever and the more recent, Zika. And that's just the beginning.

The new gene drive method can also eliminate invasive species that damage crops. Alternately, it can also modify crops that are more pest-resistant.

"The potential to reduce human suffering and ecological damage demands scientific attention. Gene drive is a fascinating area of science that has promise if we can study it appropriately," said medical ethicist Elizabeth Heitman from Vanderbilt University. Heitman helped lead the scientific panel.

The concerns surrounding the new method zones in on how these genetically altered organisms can potentially disrupt the ecosystem's delicate balance. Possible consequences include creating new diseases or eliminating other species once they are introduced outside the labs.

The technology can be downright destructive in the field of bioterrorism. Bioterrorists can use these genetically engineered species to spread not just toxins but also new diseases. Other legitimate fears include the possibility of the technology to become exploited by big biotech corporations for commercial uses.

Photo: Karunakar Rayker | Flickr

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