Kevin Esvelt is a genetic engineer, but glance at his travel schedule and you could mistake him for a political organizer. Over the past year, the MIT professor has become a familiar face at town meetings on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, where he’s traveled a half-dozen times to talk about the possibility of releasing hordes of genetically engineered mice that might rid the islands of Lyme disease. His approach is unconventional, but he hopes it will become the new normal: Before developing a technology to help people, ask the people if they want it, and include them at all steps of the process.
As biology advances at breakneck speed and international debate rages about the ethics and politics of releasing genetically engineered animals, Esvelt has emerged as a respected leader. He was one of the first scientists to build a “gene drive” that uses the new CRISPR gene-editing technology. Gene drives are powerful pieces of DNA that help spread particular genetic modifications through animal populations, and he’s among the first scientists to demand the public be on board before any such engineered animals are released. The Islands’ Lyme disease project does not involve a gene drive, but if it works, a gene drive could be used to expand it to potential projects on the mainland.
Esvelt’s engagement with local communities has earned him qualified praise even from the staunchest critics of genetic engineering. “He recognizes that this is a dangerous and disruptive technology that has to be talked about by society,” says Jim Thomas, program director at the ETC Group, a technology watchdog organization that has called for “an immediate and international halt” to experiments with gene drives.
As Esvelt builds relationships with communities on the Islands, he’s also researching the best way to prevent mice from transmitting Lyme disease and trying to design a gene drive system that would spread modifications only in a particular community or region.