Planning a Safe Release of Genetically Modified Organisms

A lot of speculation has been devoted to the benefits of releasing genetically modified organisms into the environment to benefits humans. One example is a genetically engineered zika- or dengue-resistant mosquito, which is an idea the Gates Foundation has funded and we covered here. Scientists have also developed genetically engineered algae, which recently passed an EPA hurdle for outdoor field testing. But many questions on safety remain. 

How do you plan a safe release of a genetically modified organism? And how do you build a plan B, or deal with an accidental release? These are some of the questions applied mathematicians and physicists from Harvard and Princeton have tried to answer.

Safer release of genetically modified mosquitos

The scientists on this project used mathematical modeling to guide the design and distribution of genetically modified genes that can both effectively replace wild mosquitos and be safely controlled.  

Because an accidental or premature release of a gene drive construct could cause enormous damage to the ecosystem, the scientists on this project proposed a narrow range of selective disadvantages that would allow the genes to spread, but only after a critical threshold had been reached.

The researchers used nonlinear reaction-diffusion equations to model how genes would move through space. These models provided a framework to develop socially responsible gene drives that balance the genetically engineered traits with embedded weaknesses that would protect against accidental release and uncontrollable spreading.

To learn more about this research, see the news release and the published findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences