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30.01.2017 |

2016: The Year that Wasn't Normal - ETC Group's Long-Awaited 2016 Year-in-Review

Artificial Biology:

In 2016, we found ourselves spending more and more time tracking the overrunning frontiers of synthetic biology, genome editing, gene drives, molecular communication and beyond.

Gene Editing: As predicted, the CRISPR gene editing technique continued to be “a very big thing” through 2016. As science served up gene-edited dinners as PR stunts in both Sweden and New York, it seemed a new nutritious CRISPR product in development was being announced monthly: chickens, mushrooms, corn. The heavyweight patent bust-up of the year over who actually gets to own CRISPR finally hit the courtroom in December, and the licensing battle also got underway. Harvard’s Broad Institute/Editas licensed to Monsanto, while Berkley’s Doudna Lab/Caribou Biosciences licensed to DuPont and Max Planck's Charpentier lab licensed to syn bio leader Evolva. It also became clear that a CRISPR-plus future is waiting in the wings — several similar gene editing techniques with catchy names such as NgAgo and 16sRNA became public this year, Monsanto licensed an additional CRISPR variant (CPF1) and in an interesting twist in the CRISPR patent battle, Cellectis claimed their foundational patents may undercut the whole gene editing field including CRISPR.

Gene Drives: More out of control than a AI Uber car is the rapidly emerging development of gene drives — gene-edited organisms deliberately designed to spread in the wild by sexual reproduction (sex drives?) to take over and crash wild populations and species. In 2016, mega-foundations run by Bill Gates and India’s Tata conglomerate each poured around $70–$75 million apiece into the gene drive race. Investment-wise, the US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) is the dark horse, with an unknown amount invested in its ‘safe genes’ project, which ostensibly aims to find ways to recall rogue gene drives back out of the environment. In other contingency plans to re-close Pandora’s Box, in June, alpha gene drive jockey Kevin Esvelt of MIT introduced his safety idea of ‘local gene drives’ with his ‘daisy drive’ proposal. In ETC’s view, daisy drives may perversely accelerate gene drive releases by rendering the field more commercially interesting. Esvelt’s pronouncements on gene drives swing erratically between eagerness and caution. We suspect he was behind the Broad Institute’s intriguing decision to stipulate in Monsanto’s CRISPR licensing agreement that they could not use CRISPR for gene drives or terminator technology. ETC Group is sceptical that withholding a few patent keys will stop corporate, military or other interests from taking joy rides on gene drives.