Over the past 20 years, the emerald ash borer — a strikingly beautiful green beetle that originally hails from China — has killed tens of millions of ash trees in North America.
There are 18 species of ash on this continent, many of which act as ecosystem anchors, and all of them have evolved in the absence of the emerald ash borer (EAB for short), leaving them ill-equipped to fend off the attack. EAB tunnel under ash bark to lay their eggs. Their larvae later feed on the tree’s pulp. In high enough numbers, EAB literally eat trees alive, killing healthy and mature ash in as little as two to three years. Without the pressure of natural predators, EAB populations have exploded in the Midwest and Northeastern United States and parts of Southern Canada.
As with any pandemic, efforts are underway to stop the spread and treat already impacted individuals. In towns and cities, trees are treated with insecticides to protect them from the beetle — an option that can work for city trees, but that is unfeasible on a forest scale. At the forest level, thousands of ash trees have been cut down along the Michigan/Ontario border to buffer spread into Canadian forests. In Connecticut, Russian black wasps have been released to prey on EAB larvae. Sadly, these strategies aren’t working.
It is predicted that nearly all of the 8.7 billion ash trees in North America will die within my lifetime.
A new genetic technology called CRISPR gene editing could provide a solution. CRISPR, which stands for “clustered regularly interspaced palindromic repeats,” is a genetic tool that can be used to make specific changes to the DNA of any living thing. CRISPR gene editing is also relatively inexpensive and easy to use, allowing for genetic approaches to problems in traditionally underfunded spaces like environmental conservation. When combined with another genetic technology called gene drive, CRISPR can genetically alter entire populations of wild plants and animals.
An organism engineered to encode a CRISPR-based gene drive not only expresses the desired gene edit, but also the CRISPR machinery required to make that same gene edit in its offspring. When such an organism is released to mate in the wild, its offspring inherit the gene edit, as well as the CRISPR tools to edit the wild gene it inherits from its wild parent. In this way, CRISPR-based gene drives force 100 percent inheritance of a genetic trait, allowing it to quickly spread through a population. If designed to spread a gene edit that causes sterility, CRISPR-based gene drives can be used to suppress an entire species.
CRISPR is currently being explored as a potential solution for a variety of environmental conservation issues. Mice genetically engineered to spread sterility could eliminate invasive populations that threaten endangered bird species on pacific islands. Coral could be CRISPR gene edited to withstand rising sea temperatures and protect reefs from bleaching.
With the technology already in existence, the question of “should humans genetically engineer wild species?” has in some ways, already been decided.
Even the emerald ash borer could theoretically be gene edited to impair their ability to burrow under bark or to spread infertility. If combined with a gene drive, the release of only a few of these genetically modified insects could eliminate emerald ash borers from North American forests.
These proposed genetic strategies for environmental conservation are both exciting and terrifying.
CRISPR could provide entirely new approaches to some of our most pressing environmental challenges. But, once released into the wild, CRISPR could also forever change the natural world, in ways that may be impossible to reverse. What if an emerald ash borer genetically engineered to spread sterility were accidently transported to its native Chinese ecosystem, and drove the entire species to extinction? What if coral engineered to be more hardy spread without check to become an invasive species itself? Our current state of scientific and technological knowhow can only go so far to predict the possible risks and benefits of deploying CRISPR into the wild. Leaving many to wonder if it is even ethically acceptable for humans to genetically engineer the wild?
Nevertheless, CRISPR research is proceeding at a dizzying pace. Only last year, a research team backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced it had successfully engineered a mosquito to express a CRISPR-based gene drive that could suppress mosquito populations that transmit malaria. Field trials and eventual release into the environment are predicted to take place within the next 10 years. With this technology already in existence, the question of “should humans genetically engineer wild species?” has in some ways, already been decided. Whether one supports or condones this technology, the cat is already out of the bag, so to speak. We must therefore focus our attention — with urgency — on methods that support wise decision-making about if and how these organisms should be released into the environment? And perhaps even more importantly, who gets to make those decisions?
A CRISPR-EDITED organism has yet to be approved in the US for environmental release. Until now, regulatory bodies have overseen genetically modified organisms for agricultural purposes, where the focus is on safety and keeping the organisms — in these cases, crops — contained to a specific field or plot. In contrast, genetically engineered wild species are designed to spread and reproduce in nature, making it difficult to fully predict risks to ecosystems and impacts to human health.
Moreover, decisions to release genetically engineered organisms carry unique ethical considerations. How a decision-maker relates to and values the environment will significantly shape whether they deem such an act ethically responsible. For example, those that hold nature to be intrinsically valuable, independent of its value to humans, may be more opposed to genetically interfering with a wild species. Those that take a more utilitarian view on nature, and thus see humans as separate from nature, may be more likely to support such a decision.
In the US, agencies are mandated to limit their assessment to a defined set of scientific and technical elements of a proposed technology. Such a process keeps the ethical and value-bases hidden from view, but makes them no less powerful in steering decision-making. Jennifer Kuzma, the co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State has written extensively on this topic. She argues that one reason we are witnessing immense public pushback over GMO foods is because societal values are not considered when regulatory decisions are made in the US. In an effort to ensure scientific objectivity, the value systems and viewpoints of the public — concerns over impacts to organic farmers, consumer perceptions on whether genetic engineering is natural, histories of corporate power and opacity — are not included in regulatory decision-making. Only the values held by regulatory decision-makers and technologists are given opportunity, albeit covertly, to shape regulatory outcomes. As the GMO debate in America becomes increasingly polarized and public trust in government continues to erode, the inadequacy of seemingly objective regulatory procedures couldn’t be more glaringly apparent.
CRISPR is certain to further challenge the regulatory system.
Our regulatory system gives the impression of deliberative democracy, while in practice, decision-making is restricted to the very few.
In large part, because a decision to release a CRISPR-edited organism into the wild carries a huge degree of uncertainty. We just can’t be sure how these organisms will act in the wild and what their impact on ecosystems will be. There will be unforeseen risks to both human and environmental health that simply cannot be prepared for. And when faced with uncertainty, all of us — regulators, scientists, and community members, alike — employ our value systems to fulfill the decision-making process.
How a decision-maker feels about the environment, their relationship with technology, their trust in government, and their level of risk tolerance will largely influence whether or not they think a new technology should be deployed.
In her writings, Kuzma uses risk tolerance as an example. She points to numerous sociology studies that have demonstrated that men, on average, have a higher risk tolerance than women and furthermore, white men have a higher risk tolerance than men of color. Populations who feel more vulnerable or have experienced histories (and present realities) of oppression are likely to be more risk adverse. These same populations are likely to have a lower threshold for what level of risk they are willing to accept before approving release of a genetically engineered organism into the environment. The problem is that those very same populations are often excluded from regulatory processes, leaving decision-making to be informed by the narrow set of values of a few who are likely to approve riskier proposals. For this very reason, a diverse set of perspectives and viewpoints will be needed to safeguard CRISPR technology, and by extension, the environment.
The inclusion of diverse perspectives is also a matter of environmental justice. These genetically engineered organisms will be released into shared environments. They will not be restricted to a single entity’s private property, and they are likely to cross county lines, state borders, and even spread internationally. There will always be certain communities that are more directly impacted by the potential risks and benefits of any release. Those impacted communities have a right to the decision-making process.
Some government agencies try to make space for community engagement and diverse perspectives by creating forums for public feedback. However, in the US, there is no mandate to actually head or include public feedback in decision-making procedures. Furthermore, there is no attempt to build any sort of bi-directional conversation or deliberation with the public. Instead the public is free to submit opinions on a new technology, without the opportunity for dialogue or the certainty that those opinions will be heard. And what about those entities that don’t even have voice? Regulatory deliberative processes make no space for the inclusion of the rights of nature or the future generations who will inherit the Earth. In this way, our regulatory system gives the impression of deliberative democracy, while in practice, decision-making is restricted to the very few.
CRISPR TECHNOLOGY IS developing quickly with new applications continuously emerging. It would be naïve to think that an entirely new regulatory process could be instated soon enough to oversee CRISPR release into the environment. However, we can, and must, consider ways to bolster current regulatory processes and improve the quality of decisions being made.
We should feel encouraged by several new initiatives being forged by CRISPR technologists. Kevin Esvelt, a professor at MIT media lab who is one of the inventors of CRISPR-based gene drives, runs a program called Mice against Ticks, which engages local community representatives from Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts to guide the development of a genetically engineered mouse immune to Lyme disease. Esvelt focuses on early engagement with the public and works to ensure that technology decision-making remains fully transparent throughout the process. Target Malaria, an organization working to develop gene drive mosquitos to counter malaria transmission has dedicated over $17.5 million to fund public engagement initiatives and has pledged that a gene drive release will not occur without local community consent.
Recent successes in the legal rights of nature movement should also inspire hope. Recently, the Wanganui river in New Zealand and the Ganges river in India were granted legal personhood by the state of Uttarakhand — an act that legally protects the right of the rivers to flourish, and by extension ensures those rights are heeded in environmental decision-making. Decisions to genetically engineer the environment would likely look very different if the rights of the organisms and ecosystems in question were considered.
These initiatives are exciting in that they create new ways to make technology development more inclusive and equitable. However, there are concerns over potential conflicts of interest. Issues of neutrality can arise when a developer who has invested considerable funds and effort into a technology is the sole information source for the public or if those speaking for nature have ulterior motives or agendas. Last year, 11 of my colleagues — including Kuzma, Esvelt — and I proposed an alternative approach that would provide a neutral space for balanced deliberation on application of CRISPR and gene drive technologies. In an article entitled “Editing nature: Local roots of global governance” published in Science, we lay out a new decision-making model that would enable local community representatives to decide if and how a genetically engineered organism should be released into the environment. Through standardized reports, deliberative results would feed into regulatory decision-making processes, bypassing a need to reform current regulatory structures while still enabling a broad set of inputs to inform regulatory decision-making.
A truly effective decision-making space that ensures just and responsible decisions must engender respect, humility, and care for our planet among deliberants. It must integrate local community values with global science and social science expertise to create informed and responsible decisions. It must acknowledge that a local decision could have global implications. And it must give special attention to historically marginalized voices, like those of women, children, minorities, and those speaking for nature and future generations. In doing so, we can ensure that these technologies are steered by many and not a few.
In continuing to develop transformative technologies like CRISPR, we must be equally innovative in designing just and effective decision-making processes. New technologies are not inherently good or bad —what matters is how they are used and whose vision of the future steers their development. If developed with wisdom, CRISPR could help to heal our planet. But, if we don’t seize this moment to reform how we decide to use technology, we may not only lose the ash trees, we may also lose a unique opportunity to empower diverse voices and create a more just system.
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