A powerful new technique for generating “supercharged” genetically modified organisms that can spread rapidly in the wild has caused alarm among scientists who fear that it may be misused, accidentally or deliberately, and cause a health emergency or environmental disaster.

The development of so-called “gene drive” technology promises to revolutionise medicine and agriculture because it can in theory stop the spread of mosquito-borne illnesses, such as malaria and yellow fever, as well as eliminate crop pests and invasive species such as rats and cane toads.

However, scientists at the forefront of the development believe that in the wrong hands gene-drive technology poses a serious threat to the environment and human health if accidentally or deliberately released from a laboratory without adequate safeguards. Some believe it could even be used as a terrorist bio-weapon directed against people or livestock because gene drives – which enable GM genes to spread rapidly like a viral infection within a population – will eventually be easy and cheap to generate.

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