August 21, 2020, by Brigitte Nerlich

Gene drives and societal narratives

Some days ago, I came across an interesting virtual conference (HT @Sarah_A_Hartley) about gene editing which includes a session on ‘societal narratives’. I have written quite a bit about societal narratives of gene editing, but more recently I became involved in the issue of ‘gene drive’, that is, “a system of biased inheritance in which the ability of a genetic element to pass from a parent to its offspring through sexual reproduction is enhanced”. This is a naturally occurring twist in the laws of inheritance that scientists can use (with the help of gene editing) “to develop [artificial] gene-drive modified organisms for public health, conservation, agriculture, and other societal purposes, for example, by suppressing populations of mosquito species that transmit human diseases such as malaria, dengue, Zika, and chikungunya among others” (Gene drives on the horizon, 2016).

I suddenly asked myself: Are there any societal narratives emerging around gene drives? Cloning has societal narratives, recombinant DNA has societal narratives, genetic engineering has societal narratives (I can’t wait for @matthewcobb’s book about this), genomics has societal narratives, genetic modification is buckling under its load of societal narratives. But gene drive? Not so much! Then I thought: but you have written some blog posts about gene drives and as a societal narratives aficionado, shouldn’t there be some societal narratives in there? So, I began to look at my old blog posts on gene drives.

In this post I want to review these posts and perhaps extract some societal narratives from them.

Promises and perils

If you want a really nice overview of gene drive theory and practice/applications and associated metaphors you should first read this guest post on the potential promises and potential perils of gene drives written by my colleague Aleksandra Stelmach. It lists some emerging metaphors societal narratives around governance, engineering and control, war and destruction. Framings are mostly negative, using for example the metaphor ‘Pandora’s Box’, which might have impacts on societal debates.

Eradication and war

Before I became seriously interested in gene drives, I was doing some research on ‘societal narratives’ around Zika, and when studying that I found there was one ubiquitous narrative that structured some talk of gene drive use in this context: the war metaphor. That was not surprising, as people wanted to ‘eradicate’ Zika, a disease transmitted by mosquitoes. I wrote about this in an old blog post co-authored with Carmen McLeod (Beware! the beginning is a spoof on the war narrative). But what about my gene drive blog posts proper, as part of a Wellcome Trust funded project on ‘talking about gene drive’ led by Sarah Hartley? Let’s now take a look.

Etymology and obscurity

My first post was about the metaphorical origins of ‘gene drive’. The etymology of this strange phrase is quite obscure and totally hidden from the public eye. It does not influence what people may think about gene drive in any way. What would it mean to public debate if we knew that gene drive is etymologically linked to trains (which it is)?. This does not mean that this is unimportant though. Phrases like gene editing, genetic engineering, genetic modification etc. are much more accessible in this way; they are etymologically transparent and motivated. People immediately get a handle on these concepts because they are built out of relatively well-known conceptual components, for good or for ill.

Having this immediate grasp does not mean understanding what genetic modification actually means or is. It might actually hinder rather than help achieving such an understanding. But with gene drive there isn’t any handle to grasp in order to achieve even a semblance of understanding. And this has implications for public understanding of science and also for translating this phrase into other languages, which, again, has implications for diversity of public participation in science and innovation.

Translation and confusion

I addressed some of these issues in a blog post on gene drive communication, its obstacles and opportunities. I looked at the French words for gene drive, “forçage génétique” or “guidage génétique” (which makes slightly more sense), and the German “Genantrieb” – all as confusing as gene drive! The situation is not helped by the fact that, as an article by Brossard et al. from November 2017 has pointed out (and that is even more true now): mainstream media coverage of ‘gene drives’ is still rather low, which means not a lot of people are exposed to the topic or the term.

In such a situation it will be difficult to engage in discussions about the ethics and impacts of ‘gene drives’ in any language, a common paradox for emerging technologies and responsible language use or responsible communication (see Nerlich and McLeod, 2016).

Even when you want to do media analysis of gene drive, you sometimes encounter technical obstacles and I explore some of them in my post on ‘the road to gene drive’… a long road indeed.

Some headlines in newspapers don’t help either, as for example “Wiping out the daughters: Burkina Faso’s controversial mosquito experiment”! That was rather chilling when I first read it. I have written about this in one blog post, explaining that the headline referred to the daughters of mosquitoes, not people. Confusion abounds.

Communication and confusion

Communicating gene drive really is not easy, especially since there is a lot of confusion regarding the difference between genetic modification and gene drive on the one hand and the use of microbes and gene drive on the other. I tried (and possibly failed) to explore these issues in two blog posts.

Most of the field trials currently happening or about to happen involve traditionally modified GM mosquitoes, not gene-drive modified mosquitoes. So most of the societal narratives around genetics and mosquitoes (not mammals, pests etc.) are dominated by stories about such endeavours, spearheaded by one company. This is quite confusing as there are also efforts to eradicate mosquitoes using gene drive funded by a charitable foundation, efforts that have not yet advanced as much.

One article recently (July 2020) told readers about a further step in the ongoing development of GM mosquitoes: “The federal Environmental Protection Agency has approved a plan by a British biotech company called Oxitec to release about 1 billion genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes in the Florida Keys and, next year, Texas. The mosquitoes (code-named OX5034) will only be male — the gender that does not bite humans — and will carry a new gene that will be passed on to their female offspring and cause them to die while they’re still larvae.” This is not gene drive, but easier to get a handle on, even metaphorically. A recent article about this development mentions “a Jurassic Park experiment”* and a “‘Robo-Frankenstein’ mosquito” – what Matthew Cobb rightly called ‘scare metaphors’.

The same article uses a metaphor that is quite widespread in discourses about GM and gene drive mosquitoes, namely that of the ‘Trojan horse’. It says: “Repeated releases of such ‘Trojan horse’ mosquitoes should kill, in theory, 90 percent of the local population of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is capable of transmitting the Zika and West Nile viruses, as well as dengue and yellow fever.”

Trojan Horses and multiple meanings

I had come across this metaphor before and written a blog post about it. It can be enlightening but also confusing, as it can be used in multiple ways — to explain the science but also to criticise the science and its corporate or charitable backers. But there is more. When I saw the latest use of Trojan horse metaphor used in the article cited above, I googled the metaphor again and found it’s also used, for example, as a metaphor for the workings of the Dengue virus itself, which is transmitted by mosquitoes. Trojan horse is truly polysemous – it has multiple meanings; it’s a bit of a shapeshifter.

A Trojan horse is of course a mythical beast. What about real mammals? How do they fit into the gene drive narratives, mainly populated by insects and pests?

Mice and metaphors

Gene drive research has now moved from insects to mammals and when that happened I devoted one blog post to this feat. In this context, the scientists involved used a lot of really helpful metaphors which, however, don’t seem to have seeped through in any major way into the even most rudimentary public/media debate about gene drive, namely those of ‘loading dice’ and ‘flipping coins’…

One Press Association article/press release explained for example: “Under normal circumstances, genes come in pairs, one inherited from each parent. Gregor Mendel, the ‘Father of Genetics’, discovered this fundamental principle of heredity in the 19th century as he experimented with pea plants. It means an offspring has an equal chance of inheriting a particular genetic variation, or mutation, form either its mother or father. A gene drive loads the dice, making it more likely that the offspring will be born with a chosen trait, such as fur colour.” That explanatory metaphor works!

Squirrels and metaphors

In January 2020, when the world was still an innocent place compared to what it is now, I came across an article on gene drives and their potential use in eliminating non-native pests or ‘invasive species’ (something that is heavily discussed in the Australian press, for example).

When you read the article in The Biologist you’ll be hard pressed to find any interesting metaphors, apart from, perhaps, the title: ‘Accelerating Evolution’ – which is quite an accurate description of ‘super-Mendelian inheritance’ which characterises gene drive.

What about the news reporting on this article, also based on interviews with various stakeholders? I was not surprised to see that the articles all use the language of war and battle, of killing and of enemies, something that, it seems, the scientists in particular had tried to avoid in the original article and in the interviews. This is still the predominant framing of gene drive reporting and debate.

In contrast with the newspaper reporting, the scientists themselves not only avoided gory metaphors, they also wrote about the risks of their work and the need for community engagement, saying in their article: “Although gene drive technology still faces significant scientific, political and social hurdles, we are optimistic of its future potential and as such have chosen to highlight prospective applications of the technology in this article. However, it must be noted that before any of these proposed applications are deployed there is a requirement for in-depth analysis of the ecological implications, as well as the need for broad community engagement with those that may be affected by the release of a gene drive.”

This was, strangely, not really picked up in the press reporting. This type of media silence on discourses of responsibility rather than war is concerning, as it entrenches views about the relationship between animals and humans, as well as science and society, that might not help when thinking about the challenges posed by gene drives.

Gene drives and journalistic dilemmas

Some of the dilemmas of science journalism in this domain are meticulously explored in a guest post by Rebecca Hardesty which you should all read.

It ends by saying: “While the recent New York Times Magazine article is, in my opinion, fantastic and highlights the excellent work at the University of California, it is time to rethink science journalism’s preoccupation with the most abstract and extreme moral issues associated with scientific research. Not only are they not particularly urgent issues, focusing on them occludes the realities of genetics research. Two of which are: being able to do small modifications consistently in a controlled setting is different than doing large-scale modifications to a genetically diverse species in the wild – and biologists know this. Second, there needs to be a massive and coordinated effort between researchers, governments, and industry to pull off something like eradicating malaria by genetically modifying mosquitoes. This would be a possibly unprecedented act of international communication and coordination.”

And there are even more challenges. Rebecca points out: “With all this in mind, I’d like to see more on the following challenges of gene drives: a) the difficulties communicating between researchers in different sub-specialties; b) the challenges of industry/governmental/academic collaborations; and c) issues of recruitment for diverse human genetic material.”

Gene drive communication: Confusion and challenges

Communicating gene drive is fraught with difficulties. How to convey the complex science behind it – and that in various languages? Which metaphors to use that help and don’t hinder understanding of theory and potential applications? What issues to foreground or background?

In general, the little media coverage that gene drives have received, has stuck to a war framing endemic in reporting on science and medicine, as well as some ‘scare metaphors’ ubiquitous in reporting on advances in genetic and genomics, side-lining efforts by scientists to foreground responsibility, openness, transparency and caution. Metaphors too seem, on the whole, to have swerved round explanatory metaphors offered by scientists, such as ‘loading the dice’.

In the context where gene drives are used to eradicate disease carrying insects like mosquitoes that spread malaria or invasive species that threaten native biodiversity or pests that endanger farming, it is not surprising that many, journalists in particular, but also some scientists, fall back on metaphors of war and killing, as that’s what we are going to do and it’s really difficult to escape that metaphorical trap.

However, awareness should be raised about its dangers, as it obscures the context and purpose of such killing and some of the dilemmas associated with killing one creature rather than another. More importantly, it blends out other discourses of care, caution and responsibility that many scientists have engaged in from the start of research into gene drives. This, as well as the general complexity of the topic and the many confusions surrounding it, makes it potentially more difficult to foster public deliberations around the processes and products of gene drive research and its applications.

*Interestingly, the cloning of the dinosaurs “was accomplished by extracting dinosaur DNA from mosquitoes preserved in amber” (wiki).

Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay



Posted in gene driveGMOsLanguageMetaphorsScience Communication