Rewrite life rules
In June, in an unusually windy day, Kevin Esvelt climbed a boat in hyannis, on the way to Nantucket. An assistant professor of bioengineering at the Massachusetts institute of technology is introducing a plan to one of the island’s trickiest problems: lyme disease. He spends most of his time on the job, fatigue shows up. The buttons on his gray needle-like shirt were not aligned, and the ring around his dark blue eyes made him look like a sofa raccoon.
Esvelt, 34, directs the sculpture evolution team at the Massachusetts institute of technology, and his colleagues are trying to design molecular tools that can fundamentally change the natural world. If the residents of Nantucket agree, Esvelt intends to use the tools to rewrite the DNA of the white-footed mice, making them immune to the bacteria that cause lyme disease and other ticks. He and his team will breed mice in the lab and then, as an initial experiment, put them on an uninhabited island. If the number of infected ticks starts to drop, he will seek approval to repeat the process in Nantucket and nearby Martha’s vineyard.
More than a quarter of the residents of Nantucket are infected with lyme disease, which has become one of the most rapidly spreading diseases in the United States. The disease is often accompanied by red bull ‘s-eye rashes, accompanied by fever and chills. When the disease is discovered early, most cases can be cured with a course of antibiotics. For many, however, pain and neurological symptoms can last for years. In the community throughout the northeast, the fear of lice changed the nature of the summer – few parents now allow children to walk barefoot through the grass or gently into the woods.
“What if we can wave and let this problem go away?” Esvelt asked about the introduction of more than two dozen officials and members of the public who had gathered on the island. He explained that the white-footed mice were the main repository for lyme disease, which were passed to humans through ticks. “It’s an ecological problem,” Esvelt said. We hope to develop an ecological solution to break the transmission cycle of ticks in the environment where these pathogens are infected. ”
The lyme vaccine has not yet been approved for humans, but there is a dog that is used to treat mice. Esvelt and his team will start vaccinating mice to sequence the DNA of the most protective antibodies. They then implanted the genes needed to make these antibodies into the eggs of the mice. Those mice were naturally immune to liam. Eventually, if enough of these species are released to mate with wild mice, the entire population will become resistant. Like critically, antibodies in mice kill lyme bacteria in any tick that bites them. No infected ticks, no infected people. “Take out the rats,” Esvelt told me. “the entire transmission cycle is broken.”
In the past year, Esvelt once dozens of times when it comes to lime, not only in Nantucket and Martha’s vineyard, and around the world on the BBS, from Chile’s synthetic biology seminar to meeting in Pittsburgh, President barack Obama’s White House border. Each time he appeared, Esvelt told the audience that he wanted his two children – he had a three-year-old son and an almost a daughter – to grow up in the unream world. But this is not the true infectious disease conference, the entomological society’s negotiation and international conservation seminar. He has begun a mission that he thinks is much more important.
For the first time in 2014, Esvelt and his colleagues described how crispr, a revolutionary gene editing tool, combined with what is known as gene-driven natural phenomena to alter the genetic fate of species. Genes drive work by overriding the traditional rules of Mendelian inheritance. Normally, the offspring of any sexual reproductive organ receive half the genome from each parent. But since the 1940s, biologists have realised that some genetic factors are “selfish” : evolution has given them more than 50 per cent chance of being inherited. This feature makes it possible to propagate certain features at unusual speeds.
Before crispr came along, biologists lacked tools to force a specific genetic change in the population. But the system is essentially a molecular scalpel that can alter or remove any sequence in the billions of nucleotide genomes. By placing it in the DNA of an organism, scientists can ensure that the new gene will be copied in each generation. For example, mutations in parasites that prevent malaria can be designed to be mosquitoes and pass on when mosquitoes regenerate. The offspring of each generation will have more offspring, and until sometime the whole species will have it.
There has never been a more powerful biological tool, or has more potential to improve the world and endanger it. Esvelt hopes to use this technology as leverage to prise open the scientific research process that he believes is often covert and unnecessary duplication. “The only way to do an experiment that could wipe out the whole species was completely transparent,” he told me. “Genetic drivers are most likely to succeed because of moral and practical reasons, if all the research is public. If we can do this for gene drives, we can do this for the rest of science. “