Bill Gates Says We Need to Embrace CRISPR Gene-Editing for Global Development

Bill Gates has written a wide-ranging article in support of gene-editing technologies.

Microsoft founder, Bill Gates has come out as an ardent supporter of gene editing technology. Gates who now runs the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation wrote a lengthy article for the site Foreign Affairs where he outlines how gene editing techniques such as CRISPR could transform global development.

“It would be a tragedy to pass up the opportunity,” he wrote. Gates proposes that gene editing could help solve food security issues, and improve disease prevention. 

CRISPR could accelerate global development

“Eliminating the most persistent diseases and causes of poverty will require scientific discovery and technological innovations,” he wrote. “CRISPR makes the discovery and development of innovations much faster and more precise.” 

CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, in genome engineering fields it refers to various systems that allow scientists to edit DNA at precise locations. The systems can also be used as a diagnostic tool. 

Debates rage over gene-editing use

The use of CRISPR and other gene editing technologies is the source of many philosophical debates about how much influence humans should impose on the natural world. In terms of disease prevention, Gates makes a case for how gene editing could eliminate malaria. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that ‘88% of global cases and 90% of global deaths occurred in the African Region.’ The disease is carried by female mosquitoes who pass it on to humans when they bite.

Gene editing could allow for mosquitos to be genetically modified so that they only had male offspring or for their offspring to be completely sterile. This, of course, has the ability to wipe out an entire species that would have knock-on effects on the entire ecosystem. 

Gene-editing could eliminate malaria

Biologists argue deliberately making a species extinct is unethical while others point to the fact that cases of malaria are already shrinking due to better access to medicine and prevention understanding. WHO reports that ‘between 2000 and 2015, the number of malaria cases declined by 42% while the malaria death rate declined by 66% in the African Region.’ 

Gates also pushed for gene editing to be used in agriculture. In his article, he outlines the opportunities gene editing presents to make the food production industry more efficient. 

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Gene-editing technologies have the potential to create more efficient animals, for example, cows that make more milk, or chickens that produce eggs more quickly. Gates also presents data that show how women tend to raise and sell livestock goods in many parts of the world and argues that by increasing the production more money would be available for families which has big impacts on the wider community. 

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The article also goes into depth to explain the benefits of gene editing common agricultural crops to increase yield and disease resistance. Crops that could provide more food in the same amount of space or provide two harvests in a year could be one answer to the world's growing food security problems. 

Gates Foundation already financially supporting research

Research into gene edited food has been occurring for several years, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is already supporting a project that will see the development of a type of rice that can make its own energy through photosynthesis more efficiently. 

Gates highlights that to do any of these leaps forward in gene-editing, government regulation needs to be flexible, forward-thinking, but above all ethical. “A more harmonized policy environment would prove more efficient, and it would probably also raise overall standards,” he writes. He goes on to say, “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.”

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