Can DNA editing save endangered species? | Science News for Students

Can DNA editing save endangered species?

Scientists are considering whether — and when — to use new genetic tools
Mar 6, 2018 — 6:45 am EST
kiwi bird

This kiwi is among the native species in New Zealand preyed upon by invasive rodents. Scientists think a new twist on “gene drive” technology could control the pests and save the birds.


Kiwis and other native birds in New Zealand are in trouble. In the 19th century, European traders and immigrants introduced many foreign rats, stoats and other animals to the South Pacific island nation. Since then, many of these non-native animals — known as invasive species — have been preying on the native birds, some of which don’t fly. New Zealand’s leaders want to get rid of the invaders. And a new technology could help. But scientists are now questioning whether that is a smart thing to do.

Kevin Esvelt is an evolutionary ecologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. An evolutionary ecologist studies the genetics of living things and how species have changed over time. “You need to be very careful,” Esvelt says. It’s always possible, he notes, that some “solution” might cause problems elsewhere in an ecosystem.

Esvelt is talking with people in New Zealand about a plan. They’re considering use of a type of gene-editing tool known as a gene drive. It can copy and paste itself into the genome of an organism. (A genome is the complete set of genetic instructions in an organism.) Once the gene drive is inside the genome, it could change the genes of some invasive species in a way that would make that species die off at sites where it doesn’t belong.

That may sound like a good thing. Indeed, many scientists hope it will be. Still, they have concerns. After all, if a gene drive “escapes,” it could kill that targeted species even in places where it does belong.

Tina Saey of Science News magazine has a doctorate degree in molecular genetics. She has covered gene editing and gene drives a lot. In an award-winning feature story in the magazine, she notes: “Researchers have designed ways to keep [gene drives] confined in the lab.” However, she adds, “no such safety nets exist for gene drives released into the wild.”

Wiping out an entire species, even if it’s a pest, raises questions about whether such a move would be the right thing to do. To date, she points out, scientists and policymakers are only just starting to think about this.

How it works

In recent years, a new and very popular tool has been available to tinker with genes. It’s known as CRISPR/Cas9. Most people just call it CRISPR. (That’s much shorter than using its entire name: “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.”) The Cas9 part is an enzyme. It’s a molecular scissors, of sorts, that cuts DNA.

Scientists inject Cas9 into a cell in which they want to alter DNA. But Cas9 is blind and doesn’t know where to make cuts. It needs a buddy, like a guide dog, to show it where to snip. In this case, the guide dog is a small piece of another type of genetic material, called RNA. The guide RNA shows Cas9 where to cut.

Guide RNAs are very picky. They will only take Cas9 to one particular place in the genome. It’s similar to a guide dog leading its owner to one particular subway station and to the correct track. Even though there are many subway stations and multiple tracks, only one is the right one.

Once Cas9 and its guide reach their destination, the scissors snips the DNA. Then, other things can happen. One possibility is that the cell can repair the cut. Sometimes the repair is done by sticking the cut ends back together. That can break the gene. Sometimes the repair fixes a previously broken gene, by using a healthy copy of the gene as a pattern. Scientists have used this RNA-enzyme combo to break and fix genes in many types of animals.

Another possibility is that a piece of DNA that the researchers have injected into the cell (along with Cas9) can be pasted into the cut section. Scientists use this method to insert genes into plants and animals at precise locations.

Gene drives take the CRISPR system a step further.

A gene drive uses an extra piece of DNA to paste into the cut. That extra DNA contains the code to make the CRISPR system again. It’s like a combination scissors and copy machine that can make copies of itself.

When an animal or plant carrying a gene drive mates, its eggs or sperm will make the scissors protein and the guide RNA. When the egg or sperm from the organism with the gene drive fuses to an egg or sperm from an unaltered organism, the gene drive goes to work. Cas9 cuts the unaltered DNA in the place where the guide RNA shows it to. Then, the cell repairs the break by putting in a copy of the gene drive. It’s that extra copying step that makes a gene drive different from regular CRISPR.

What makes a gene drive special

Normally a parent has a 50/50 chance of passing any given gene along to its offspring. But gene drives take over any unaltered version of the target gene. So, they can be passed along almost 100 percent of the time. That’s why they are called gene drives — because they break the 50/50 genetic speed limit.

Scientists have used gene drives in the lab to alter eye color in fruit flies. They have tinkered with yeast. Two separate groups have made CRISPR gene drives to stop mosquitoes from transmitting malaria. (One group of researchers altered the mosquitoes so that the insects can’t carry the malaria parasite. The other group altered genes so that the mosquitoes can no longer reproduce.)

CRISPR gene drives could set the stage to make gene edits in nearly every member of a selected species. How? Scientists add the new gene they want to alter — let’s call it a “taming” one — to the targeted species. Then the CRISPR gene drive makes this change whenever it finds a wild (untweaked) version of the gene.

As the genetically “tamed” organisms breed with wild ones, the CRISPR gene drive “cuts the original version and replaces it with the edited one,” Esvelt explains. Now, “in the next generation, all the offspring are guaranteed to inherit it. And again. And again. And again.” Eventually, practically every organism in a population will be born with the newly inserted taming gene.

Breaking that speed limit

In a small population, that change can take just 12 to 24 generations. For short-lived animals like a rat, that may amount to only several years. If any organisms with the altered gene go elsewhere, they can spread that gene drive into a new population. For instance, Esvelt notes, “Rats are really good stowaways [on ships].” Or people could intentionally move them. Just a handful of altered organisms released into a new population should be able to quickly spread the gene drive through all of them, Esvelt says.

rat predator
Rats are pests in many places, including New Zealand, where they prey on native birds. A new variation on gene drives might help save native species.
Sergey Yeliseev/Flickr

He even suggests a humane way to kill off a rat population that threatened local bird species: Add a gene that makes the rats infertile. Individual rats wouldn’t suffer. But they couldn’t have more babies. Over time, the local population would die out. And the rats’ threat to the birds would go away. 

But even rats have native populations where an ecosystem depends on them. So scientists don’t want to kill them off everywhere in the world. Otherwise, that could throw off the ecological balance somewhere else. Esvelt’s group has proposed a way to limit that risk.

“We call this a daisy drive, because it involves creating a gene-drive daisy chain,” he explains. Just as each flower in a chain of daisies is a separate unit, each part of the “daisy” gene drive would have part of the instructions for CRISPR and the gene drive. And those parts are scattered around in different places in the genome. Because only half of a parent’s DNA is passed on to offspring, some of the pieces won’t get inherited in the next generation. Without all of the pieces in one organism, the gene drive eventually gets a flat tire and can’t drive anymore.

Esvelt has gotten the daisy chain gene drive to work in the lab with tiny worms known as nematodes. The results are “very preliminary,” he says. However, he believes, it’s time to start talking about the idea.

Do we have the right?

Todd Kuiken is an environmental scientist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. He and Esvelt talked about gene drives and CRISPR on October 6. They were taking part in the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual meeting in Pittsburgh, Pa. Kuiken agrees that lots of people should think hard and talk about whether and how to couple gene drives and CRISPR.  

“Do we as humans really have the right to do this?” Kuiken asks. That’s a big question. What he means is that there’s a lot at stake with a version of a gene drive that is designed to spread a change in the environment forever. Even with the daisy chain, he wonders whether humans have the right “to remove one species from one area where we don’t want it, or that we don’t think is good for it.”

Also, he asks, “where do you field-test a gene drive?” After all, the animals people want to change don’t stay put. They tend to roam about an ecosystem.

No one has clear answers on what is the right thing to do. Nor is it clear who should have the right to make the final call, Kuiken says. Yet that doesn’t mean the technology shouldn’t be used at all, he adds. Indeed, he noted, if people wait too long, it may be too late to save an endangered species.

This video explains what makes a gene drive.  Stat News/Vimeo.

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

annual     Adjective for something that happens every year.

breed     (noun) Animals within the same species that are so genetically similar that they produce reliable and characteristic traits. German shepherds and dachshunds, for instance, are examples of dog breeds. (verb) To produce offspring through reproduction.

CRISPR     An abbreviation — pronounced crisper — for the term “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” These are pieces of RNA, an information-carrying molecule. They are copied from the genetic material of viruses that infect bacteria. When a bacterium encounters a virus that it was previously exposed to, it produces an RNA copy of the CRISPR that contains that virus’ genetic information. The RNA then guides an enzyme, called Cas9, to cut up the virus and make it harmless. Scientists are now building their own versions of CRISPR RNAs. These lab-made RNAs guide the enzyme to cut specific genes in other organisms. Scientists use them, like a genetic scissors, to edit — or alter — specific genes so that they can then study how the gene works, repair damage to broken genes, insert new genes or disable harmful ones.

daisy chain     (engineering idiom) A series of things (such as electrical devices) that are linked together, one after another in a line (or attached at the ends to form a loop). It gets its name from a garland of true daisies that girls used to fashion by attaching the stemmed blooms to make a chain. The idea in engineering is that all are plugged together and dependent on the one in front of it to work as a system.

DNA     (short for deoxyribonucleic acid) A long, double-stranded and spiral-shaped molecule inside most living cells that carries genetic instructions. It is built on a backbone of phosphorus, oxygen, and carbon atoms. In all living things, from plants and animals to microbes, these instructions tell cells which molecules to make.

ecosystem     A group of interacting living organisms — including microorganisms, plants and animals — and their physical environment within a particular climate. Examples include tropical reefs, rainforests, alpine meadows and polar tundra.

evolutionary ecologist     Someone who studies the adaptive processes that have led to the diversity of ecosystems on Earth. These scientists can study many different subjects, including the microbiology and genetics of living organisms, how species that share the same community adapt to changing conditions over time, and the fossil record (to assess how various ancient communities of species might be related to each other and to modern-day relatives).

field     An area of study, as in: Her field of research was biology. Also a term to describe a real-world environment in which some research is conducted, such as at sea, in a forest, on a mountaintop or on a city street. It is the opposite of an artificial setting, such as a research laboratory.

gene     (adj. genetic) A segment of DNA that codes, or holds instructions, for a cell’s production of a protein. Offspring inherit genes from their parents. Genes influence how an organism looks and behaves.

gene drive    A technique for introducing new bits of DNA into genes to change their function. Unlike other such genetic engineering techniques, gene drives are self-propagating. That means they make more of themselves, becoming part of every unaltered target gene they encounter. As a result, they get passed on to more than 50 percent of an altered animal’s offspring, “driving” themselves quickly into populations.

generation     A group of individuals (in any species) born at about the same time or that are regarded as a single group. Your parents belong to one generation of your family, for example, and your grandparents to another. Similarly, you and everyone within a few years of your age across the planet are referred to as belonging to a particular generation of humans. The term also is sometimes extended to year classes of other animals or to types of inanimate objects (such as electronics or automobiles).

genetic     Having to do with chromosomes, DNA and the genes contained within DNA. The field of science dealing with these biological instructions is known as genetics. People who work in this field are geneticists.

genome    The complete set of genes or genetic material in a cell or an organism. The study of this genetic inheritance housed within cells is known as genomics.

malaria     A disease caused by a parasite that invades the red blood cells. The parasite is transmitted by mosquitoes, largely in tropical and subtropical regions.

mechanism     The steps or process by which something happens or “works.” It may be the spring that pops something from one hole into another. It could be the squeezing of the heart muscle that pumps blood throughout the body. It could be the friction (with the road and air) that slows down the speed of a coasting car. Researchers often look for the mechanism behind actions and reactions to understand how something functions.

microscopic     An adjective for things too small to be seen by the unaided eye. It takes a microscope to view objects this small, such as bacteria or other one-celled organisms.

native     Associated with a particular location; native plants and animals have been found in a particular location since recorded history began. These species also tend to have developed within a region, occurring there naturally (not because they were planted or moved there by people). Most are particularly well adapted to their environment.

nematode     A type of roundworm, usually found in soil, that can also live within other creatures as a parasite. It is usually quite small, with no eyes, ears or nose. However, the occasional species can get up to a meter long.

New Zealand     An island nation in the southwest Pacific Ocean, roughly 1,500 kilometers (some 900 miles) east of Australia. Its “mainland” — consisting of a North and South Island — is quite volcanically active. In addition, the country includes many far smaller offshore islands.

online     (n.) On the internet. (adj.) A term for what can be found or accessed on the internet.

organism     Any living thing, from elephants and plants to bacteria and other types of single-celled life.

population     (in biology) A group of individuals from the same species that lives in the same area.

preliminary     An early step or stage that precedes something more important.

prey     (n.) Animal species eaten by others. (v.) To attack and eat another species.

RNA     A molecule that helps “read” the genetic information contained in DNA. A cell’s molecular machinery reads DNA to create RNA, and then reads RNA to create proteins.

rodent     A mammal of the order Rodentia, a group that includes mice, rats, squirrels, guinea pigs, hamsters and porcupines.

stoat     A small carnivorous mammal of the weasel family.


Meeting: A. Opar et al. Can DNA editing save species? Society of Environemtnal Journalists 2017. October 6, 2017. Pittsburgh, Pa.

Article: K. Esvelt. Could daisy drive help make New Zealand predator-free? Responsive Science. October 3, 2017.

Journal: C. Noble et al. Evolutionary dynamics of CRISPR gene drives. Science Advances. Vol. 3, April 5, 2017, e1601964. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.1601964.

Preprint: C. Noble et al. Daisy-chain gene drives for the alteration of local populations. bioRxiv. June 7, 2016. doi: 10.1101/057307.

Journal: O. Akbari. “Safeguarding gene drive experiments in the laboratory.” Science. Vol. 349, August 28, 2015, p. 927. doi: 10.1126/science.aac7932. 

Journal: K. Esvelt et al. “Emerging technology: Concerning RNA-guided gene drives for the alteration of wild populations.” eLife. July 17, 2014. doi: 10.7554/eLife.03401.

Journal: K. Oye et al. “Regulating gene drives.” Science. Published online July 17, 2014. doi: 10.1126/science.1254287.