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A Brief History of Gene Editing - Pacific Standard

A Brief History of Gene Editing

In just over 40 years, we've gone from simple modifications to the development of a gene drive that could eradicate an entire species.
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1973

Herb Boyer and Stanley Cohen create the first genetically engineered organism—a bacteria with an added gene to confer antibiotic resistance—in Cohen's Stanford University lab.

1974

The National Academy of Sciences establishes a moratorium on genetic engineering experiments until safety issues can be examined.

1975

More than 100 biologists meet at California's Asilomar conference center and establish the principles for risk assessment and mitigation in biotechnology that are used to this day. Among the established principles is an emphasis on public engagement and transparency.

1982

The first genetically engineered human drug—synthetic insulin, produced by bacteria that contain the human insulin gene—is approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

1994

Calgene introduces the first genetically engineered food, the Flavr Savr tomato, which is engineered to stay firm when ripe. It bombs.Monsanto releases

1996

Monsanto releases its first genetically modified crops. Within a few years, Roundup Ready corn, soybeans, cotton, sugar beets, and canola dominate the market. Shortly thereafter, Roundup-resistant weeds begin to appear in fields where those crops are grown.

2003

Geneticist Austin Burt is the first to propose that a "selfish gene"—one that guarantees inheritance by most offspring—could be used as a biocontrol against another species. Burt is aware of the implications of his idea: "Wide-ranging discussions are needed on the criteria for deciding whether to eradicate or genetically engineer an entire species." But the idea remains theoretical at this time—no technology yet exists capable of designing such a gene.

A version of this story originally appeared in the June/July 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

A version of this story originally appeared in the June/July 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

2012

Researchers at the University of California–Berkeley and the Broad Institute independently discover that CRISPR—a bacterial immune system—can be adapted to serve as a gene-editing tool that can make specific changes to DNA anywhere in an organism's genome.

2014

Kevin Esvelt et al. publish a paper demonstrating how CRISPR could be used to drive a genetic modification through all members of a population or species, permanently altering or eradicating them. He proposes using it to control invasive species and to eliminate diseases such as Lyme disease and malaria.

2015

Scientists at the University of California– San Diego build the first gene drive in a lab-based population of fruit flies, and Imperial College London builds the first gene drive in lab mosquitoes.

2016

A National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine report finds that gene drives have huge potential in agriculture, disease reduction, and conservation, but recommends more research, public engagement, and highly controlled field trials before any such organisms are released into the environment.

Over 150 groups call for a moratorium on gene drive research, but the moratorium is shot down at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.

2017

Research teams in Texas and Australia announce gene drive house mice—the first use of gene drive in a mammal.

The first gene-altering treatments for cancer are approved by the FDA.

Kevin Esvelt issues a public statement retracting his recommendation to use gene drives for conservation: "It was profoundly wrong of me to even suggest it."

A version of this story originally appeared in the June/July 2018 issue of Pacific Standard as a sidebar to "Deleting a Species." Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

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