UC Davis Joins DARPA-funded “Safe Genes” Program

Initiative Aims to Support Responsible CRISPR Gene Editing

By Trina Wood

The federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) last week announced the Safe Genes program to explore innovative genetic techniques to support bio-innovation and combat biological threats. The effort, supported by a $65 million grant from DARPA over four years, aims to harness gene editing tools in a safe, responsible manner to maximize the benefits of these technologies while minimizing their inherent risks.

Aedes aegypti carries yellow fever, Zika and other viruses. (CDC photo)

DARPA awarded funds to seven different teams who will undertake various aspects of the project. UC Davis vector biologist Greg Lanzaro joins the effort as part of the UC Riverside-led team to study pioneering genetic techniques to control disease-causing mosquitoes. Initial research will focus on Aedes aegypti, which carries diseases such as Zika, chikungunya, dengue and yellow fever. But the technologies developed are meant to be later applied to other mosquito species responsible for spreading diseases such as malaria and West Nile virus.

They will focus on a technique known as gene drive, which has drawn a lot of attention lately for its potential to ensure the spread of a desired genetic trait throughout a population. This technique alters genes through the use of CRISPR, a gene editing tool rich with possibility, but also controversy.

“My biggest concern is that there are mosquitoes in the natural population who have evolved or have genetic diversity that may render them resistant to gene drives,” said Greg Lanzaro, director of the UC Davis Vector Genetics Laboratory and professor in the Department of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology in the School of Veterinary Medicine. “The only way to determine that is to sequence the genome of as many individuals from as many places as possible, as each local population is slightly different.”

There’s a lot of sequencing required for Aedes aegypti as they have approximately five times the genome of malaria mosquitoes.

“The computational aspect of this work is very burdensome,” Lanzaro said, “which makes it a lot harder and more expensive to complete the sequencing. But that’s the big strength of having UC Davis involved in this project. We have the facilities and people to conduct the population genomics work, which will also involve estimating the size of potential target mosquito populations and to describe how these mosquitoes disperse throughout the envirnoments in which they live.”

The UC Davis team members have about four years to complete their part of the project with a budget a little over $2.2 million.

“Our primary goal is to safely test and innovate these technologies strictly in the laboratory,” said Omar Akbari, an assistant professor of entomology at UC Riverside, who will lead the collaboration of six UC campuses. “We hope our efforts will broaden our fundamental understanding of the potency of gene drives to help better understand how they may behave in the natural environment if ever released.”

In a press release, DARPA points out that the research will not involve any releases of organisms into the environment. However, the research—performed in contained facilities—could inform potential future applications, including safe, predictable, and reversible gene drives. The UC Davis component will collect data on key factors of the biology of real mosquito populations. These data will be incorporated into mathematical models aimed at predicting the behavior of a variety of gene drive systems when they are released at field sites in the future.

“The field of gene editing has been advancing at an astounding pace, opening the door to previously impossible genetic solutions but without much emphasis on how to mitigate potential downsides,” said Renee Wegrzyn, the Safe Genes program manager. “DARPA launched Safe Genes to begin to refine those capabilities by emphasizing safety first for the full range of potential applications, enabling responsible science to proceed by providing tools to prevent and mitigate misuse.”

Other teams in the project will be led by: The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard; Harvard Medical School; Massachusetts General Hospital; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; North Carolina State University and the University of California, Berkeley.

More information

DARPA news release

UC Davis Vector Genetics Laboratory

UC Davis Joins Initiative to Fight Malaria in Africa

Trina Wood is a communications officer for the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. Twitter: @ucdavisvetmed

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