Biodiversity is a major contemporary environmental challenges. New biotechnologies have the potential to preserve biodiversity and possibly to even repair it. One such new biotechnology is “gene drives.” These are an application of CRISPR genetic editing technologies through which a modified genetic trait spreads among organisms of the same species, including in situ (i.e. in the wild) populations. Scientists, governments, and business are proposing to use them in the near future to protect humans, other species, and ecosystems. Gene drives can cause the intentional extinction of a local population, such as to eradicate disease vectors or invasive species. Alternatively, they can genetically modify a wild population to, for example, be more resilient to expected climate change. A second set of technologies is a combination of CRISPR-based genetic editing, cloning, and selective breeding that may be able to revive extinct species. At the same time, gene drives pose substantial and potentially transboundary environmental risks, such as unexpected ecological impacts, as well as social challenges, such as that of weaponization. Furthermore, both gene drives and de-extinction are controversial among environmentalists and their advocacy organizations. Governance and the politics are thus salient.
The most relevant international forum for negotiating gene drives and de-extinction is the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which has both near-global participation and more than a dozen obligations regarding the conservation of in situ biodiversity. The CBD’s Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice has considered gene drives, at the request of the agreement’s parties. They later established an Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group. These issues recently came to a head at the 2018 Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity. There, green environmental groups pushed prohibitive language that states rejected, in large part due to the leadership of humanitarian organizations and sub-Saharan African countries, whose endemic malaria could be eradicated through gene drives.
This article introduces gene drives’ and de-extinction’s in situ applications, their potential and risks, and their nascent politics. It presents salient extant and proposed international governance mechanisms. The relevant positions and activities of states and of environmental, humanitarian, and other nongovernmental organizations are reviewed and analyzed. The paper also identifies similarities and important contrasts with analogies technologies that have engendered international debates around sustainability, biodiversity, and risk such as genetically modified crops and climate geoengineering, suggesting causal conditions of the differential political and policy responses.