The CRISPR machines that can wipe out entire species

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The genetic-engineering tool could help combat malaria and invasive species. But should we use it?

Charles Darwin had no idea what a gene was. If we dropped the father of evolution into 2019, the idea that humans can willfully alter the genes of an entire species would surely seem like wizardry to him.

But CRISPR gene drives — a new, inconceivably powerful technique that forces genes to spread through a population — have the ability to do just that. Gene drives allow us to hone the blunt edges of natural selection for our own purposes, potentially preventing the spread of disease or eradicating invasive pests.

Yet as with any science performed at the frontier of our knowledge, we are still coming to terms with how powerful CRISPR gene drives might be. Playing the game of genomes means we may, in the future, choose which species live and which die — a near-unbelievable capability that scientists and ethicists agree presents us with unique moral, social and ethical challenges.

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