At the 14th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity late last year, I witnessed the rapid deterioration of a crucial discussion. It was on the potential of synthetic biology in environmental conservation. What started as heckling turned into a yelling match of misinformation. Such disruptive behaviour robbed the global community of a rare opportunity to debate gene drives in a meaningful way. Sidelined young scientists, country delegates and others watched in disbelief.
This dangerous breakdown in civil dialogue stems from the potential risks posed by gene-drive technology. In theory, gene drives could restore threatened ecosystems and eliminate vectors of disease. But they could also transform entire species by pushing edited genes through populations of wild plants and animals.
Broad, thoughtful and respectful debate is therefore the only way to abolish scientific and societal blind spots, minimize risks and steer the safe and equitable sharing of any benefits of gene-drive technology. Gene drives are likely to affect environments bound by kinship, cultural identity and life-sustaining resources. It is not enough for the communities in those environments, including historically marginalized peoples, simply to be present at the debating table — their voices must be heard.
Nature 565, 25 (2019)