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Scientists mobilize for a fight over powerful gene-editing technology

Scientists mobilize for a fight over powerful gene-editing technology
From CBC - December 15, 2017

It sounds like the plot of a science fiction novel:Scientists discoverhow to eradicate an entire species. Environmentalists want to stopthe research. A United Nations committee invites experts to anonline forumto consider the facts.

Behind the scenes, the scientists organize to presentcertain information. The environmentalists find out and get access to the scientists' personal emails and dump them on the internet.

But it's not fiction. It all happenedthe first skirmish in a battle over what could be one of the most powerful technologiesever developed.

The technology is called gene drive. Scientists introduce a genetic defect that can spread rapidly through a population, causing it to die off.

A few years ago gene drive was just a theory. But it became a near-reality almost overnight once the CRISPR gene editing system made it easier for scientists to do precise genetic modification.

The recently discovered CRISPR/Cas9system functionslike molecular scissors, allowing scientists to modifythe DNA of humans and other species withunprecedented ease.

Now many groupsincluding theDefence Advanced Research Projects Agency, an agency of the U.S. militaryare developing gene drive technologyaimed at solving a variety of problems including wiping out disease-carrying insects and eradicating invasive mammals like rodents andrabbits.

But is everyone OK with the idea that we are approaching the ability to wipe out a species? Science has been moving so fast there's been little time for the conversation.

Last December, 170 environmental groups at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Mexico called for a moratorium on gene-drive research. Thatcall went unheeded, but it alarmed gene-drive scientists, and they are fighting back.

That brings us to the great email dump last week. Scientists around the world were stunned when dozens of their personal emails suddenly appeared in the public domainreleased by an environmental activist who obtained the documents through U.S. freedom of Information laws.

The emails reveal a Canadian public relations firm, Emerging Ag Inc.,recruiting scientists to participate in an online UN gene-drive forumand notifying them when to jump into the discussions.

The people namedin the emails told CBC News it was not a nefarious cloak-and-dagger effort to game the discussions. Rather, it was simply a way of monitoring a detailed online discussion that went on for days and ensure thatscientists were able to have a voice. After all, the environmentalists on the other side were also organized and co-ordinated.

'It was well organized'

True, said James Thomas, of the Ottawa-based technology watchdog ETC,whoparticipatedin theUN forum. He was also actively involved in releasing the scientists' emails. But he said the scientists were not transparent about the fact they were working together.

"There was a recruitment phase, and then they had phone calls with people to talk through what they should expect in the forum and how they should interact with it.And then they were sent an email every few days giving very specific instructions this has been brought up, we need people to respond to this," Thomas said. "It was well organized."

'The presence of big money is not just structuring how the technology is presented but also how it's governed, and that's worrying.' James Thomas

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