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Altering Genes In Wild Populations: Boon For Human Health? Or Darwinian Nightmare?

Researchers have proposed a way to alter the genes in wild populations. The applications include potentially eradicating malaria. (Centers for Disease Control)

Researchers have proposed a way to alter the genes in wild populations. The applications include potentially eradicating malaria. (Centers for Disease Control)

Imagine a technology that lets humans stack the deck against natural selection.

An altered gene of our choosing would replace a gene that occurs in a wild population. That change would then be passed from generation to generation. It’s a promising new technology that could eradicate malaria and control invasive species. But is that playing God? Is it a Darwinian nightmare?

Whatever it is, it’s no longer in the realm of the imaginary.

A team researchers, some from Harvard and MIT, recently released two papers outlining a feasible way to edit genes in wild populations. It’s done using a method known as “gene drive.”

The elements to create gene drive technology already exist but they haven’t yet been combined and tested in the lab. Before that happens, the researchers want to have a public discussion about the risks — like inadvertent species extinction — and benefits of this kind of gene manipulation.

WBUR’s Sacha Pfeiffer speaks with two of those researchers about the pros and cons of this technology.

Guests

  • Kevin Esvelt, technology research fellow at the Wyss Institute at Harvard University
  • Kenneth Oye, professor of political science and engineering systems and director of the Program on Emerging Technologies at MIT

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Hosts Meghna Chakrabarti and Anthony Brooks introduce us to newsmakers, big thinkers and artists and bring us stories of relevance to Bostonians here and around the region. Live every weekday at 3.

WBUR's Sacha Pfeiffer is co-hosting Radio Boston while Meghna Chakrabarti is on maternity leave.

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