closeup of screw worm

Hastings Center News

Project to Examine “Deliberate Extinction” of Species

A new project at The Hastings Center will propose recommendations for deciding if especially dangerous species should be eradicated with gene editing technology.

Candidate species could include mosquitos that transmit infectious diseases such as malaria; the new world screw worm (above), which eats the living flesh of animals including human beings; and rats, which pose public health and environmental threats to threatened and endangered species in many places. Nonetheless, the prospect of using genome editing to extinguish a wild species is inherently troubling for many people.

“It’s conceivable that we could use gene editing technology to eliminate an entire species from our planet,” said Gregory E. Kaebnick, a senior research scholar at The Hastings Center who is a principal investigator. “But would that ever be the right thing to do? And how should we approach such a decision?” 

The project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, will support regulatory oversight and promote broad public deliberation about genome editing. In addition to Kaebnick, the project is led by James Collins of Arizona State University. Hastings Center research scholar Athmeya Jayaram is an investigator.

The work will be shared through an open-access report and publications for professional and nonprofessional audiences. The project will also build scholarship on these issues, by enlisting a group of scholars in the development of the report and by providing training in values-oriented research to a graduate student in ecology or conservation biology.

The scholarly focus of the project is on philosophical and ethical questions raised by the idea of extinction via genome editing. Why, exactly, might that idea be troubling? Some of these questions are about the value of species, biodiversity, and the human relationship to nature generally, whether humans ought to reduce the suffering of wild animals, and how trade-offs should be made between public health, agricultural, animal welfare, conservation, values, and other goals. Other questions are about the nature of genome editing and how it differs from other ways of controlling species. Yet other questions include how the public should be engaged in science policy.

The project will contribute to environmental ethics, conservation biology, science and technology studies, and political science.