Bill Gates says it would be a “tragedy” not to take advantage of CRISPR gene-editing

Bill Gates has faith in CRISPR gene-editing.
Bill Gates has faith in CRISPR gene-editing.
Image: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
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Bill Gates thinks the future should be genetically edited.

In an piece for Foreign Affairs published yesterday (April 10), Gates outlined the case for using CRISPR and other gene-editing techniques on a global scale to meet growing demand for food and to improve disease prevention, particularly for malaria. “It would be a tragedy to pass up the opportunity,” he wrote.

Gene editing, either through CRISPR or even more precise techniques, speeds up the natural breeding process of living organisms. Rather than the spending decades selectively choosing the mates for plants and animals that create offspring with certain traits, gene editing allows the process to happen in a single generation. It takes advantage of the genetic capabilities within a species, unlike processes involving transgenic organisms, which contain foreign DNA.

The technology has benefits for both producing food production and stopping the spread of illness through animals—particularly malaria in regions such as Africa, where nearly all of the fatal cases worldwide are contracted.

Making animals more productive

In agriculture, Gates argues, gene-editing technologies could be used to make more productive animals—cows that make more milk, or chickens that produce eggs more quickly. Women tend to raise and sell livestock goods, he notes, and are therefore more likely to use the extra proceeds to purchase more household goods, which benefits entire families.

Additionally, editing crops to withstand harsher growing conditions, or to include naturally occurring pesticides and herbicides, would improve crop yields. Crops edited for quality—mushrooms that can last longer once harvested or potatoes that contain fewer naturally occurring toxins—would make sure populations in developing countries receive the nutrients they need to live productive lives.

With regard to disease spread, Gates focuses on malaria. The parasite that causes the debilitating disease is spread primarily through female mosquitos. Ideally, scientists would be able to genetically modify mosquitoes so that they only have male offspring (which don’t bite), or were sterile. That said, this type of gene editing has the potential to eliminate entire populations or species—a consequence not all biologists are comfortable with, given mosquitoes’ role as part of the food chain in some environments.

The challenges of regulation

The Bill and Melina Gates Foundation has supported research in gene editing for years. A lot of the ideas that he puts forward here are mainstays for the nonprofit organization—and for the scientific community in general.

For example, scientists have proposed gene drives—releasing genetically edited organisms  into the wild—to stop the spread of illnesses by rats and mosquitoes. In Brazil, researchers released mosquitoes incapable of spreading Zika at the height of the 2016 epidemic. Research in genetically editing crops is extremely robust in labs settings all over the world. The Gates Foundation has supported the development of rice that can make its own energy through photosynthesis more efficiently. And beyond Gates’ philanthropic goals, numerous global biotech companies have interest in making crops like more fibrous wheat or faster growing tomatoes.

One of the biggest challenges facing a genetically edited future, Gates notes is the differences in regulation in around the world. The US Department of Agriculture has already officially stated that domestic gene-edited crops need not be regulated. However, the European Union is still skeptical of these products, though a recent court ruling suggested is may be open to requiring less regulation. Other countries may not even have defined standards.

“A more harmonized policy environment would prove more efficient, and it would probably also raise overall standards,” Gates writes. More concretely, “funders of gene-editing research must ensure that it is conducted in compliance with standards such as those advanced by the WHO and the National Academy of Sciences, no matter where the research takes place.”

Read next: A global chocolate crisis looms, but scientists believe they can genetically engineer a fix

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to the journal Foreign Affairs as Foreign Policy.