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UK's The Pirbright Institute plays a role in DARPA's Safe Genes programme

Scientists at The Pirbright Institute were awarded $2.66 million as part of a research project led by Massachusetts Institute of Technology in DARPA's Safe Genes programme. The programme aims to gain a fundamental understanding of how gene editing technologies function, address potential health and security concerns relating to accidental or intentional misuse of the technology and determine how they can be used safely, responsibly and predictably for global benefit.

“Advances across biotechnology and bioscience are transforming our abilities to understand threats and challenges and creating new and innovative ways to address them. These advances will benefit all of us,” said Professor Melanie Welham, Chief Executive at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. “The UK’s Pirbright Institute has world leading expertise and is playing a key role in DARPA’s Safe Genes Programme, which strengthens international collaboration in order to deliver global benefits.”

Professor Luke Alphey will lead research at Pirbright into how ‘Daisy-drive’ gene drive techniques could be employed in populations of mosquitoes in a bid to control vector-borne diseases such as Zika and dengue. The work will focus on disease-transmitting mosquitoes, primarily Aedes aegypti and Culex quinquefasciatus, to build ‘Daisy-drive’ systems potentially able to suppress mosquito populations. Data from research in controlled lab populations will provide detailed risk assessments of any potential future use of ‘Daisy-drive’ genetically-engineered mosquitoes in the environment.

Professor Luke Alphey, Group leader of Arthropod Genetics at Pirbright: “Mosquito control is central to the control of mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue and Zika, but the methods currently available have limited impact and sustainability. Genetic methods can greatly improve on this and field trials of the first such methods have been extremely promising. This funding gives us a real opportunity to develop new variants that are more cost-effective and sustainable as well as being safe, local and reversible.”

Gene drive systems operate by influencing inheritance so the drive system is inherited at an increased rate. This allows the frequency of a gene drive in a population to increase, even without conferring a fitness advantage. Two main uses for gene drive systems have been proposed - to suppress harmful pest populations, or to make them less harmful, for example by spreading a gene making a mosquito less able to transmit a particular virus.

Attempts to make gene drive systems began decades ago; new developments in genetic technology, especially CRISPR/Cas9, have made several designs much more feasible. Standard gene-drive systems based on CRISPR/Cas9 may potentially be highly invasive if released into the environment and could continue spreading until they have affected most or all populations of the target species.

In some cases this may be desirable, but where the modification or suppression of a target population needs to be controlled and reversible, ‘Daisy-drive’ technology potentially provides a solution. ‘Daisy-drive’ is the next generation gene drive system which is local and self-exhausting, meaning there are built in limitations which prevent genetically-engineered changes spreading beyond a pre-determined geographic area, and also allowing populations to eventually return to their original state.

Understanding insect genetics and exploring synthetic biological solutions illustrates BBSRC’s commitment to advance knowledge and technology to meet real-world problems. Pest insects can cause massive damage to agriculture, livestock and human health; several research projects to understand and reduce this damage are currently underway using BBSRC-funded Pirbright facilities.

ENDS

Notes to editors

The Safe Genes team involves an international team of collaborators researching a range of applications of 'Daisy-drive' technology over the course of the programme with up to four years of funding through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They will build mathematical models of gene editing systems and cage-trial them in insects and other species to test hypotheses and feed results back to fine-tune parameters. The project will not include environmental release. As well as laboratory research, another major component comprises stakeholder engagement, enabling insights and feedback from stakeholders to inform ongoing and future regulatory research in this area.

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Tags: genetics early career The Pirbright Institute fundamental bioscience news research technologies