Spatial gene drives and pushed genetic waves

21 April 2017

David Nelson
Lyman Laboratory
Department of Physics
Harvard University


Gene drives have the potential to rapidly replace a harmful wild-type allele with a gene drive allele engineered to have desired functionalities. However, an accidental or premature release of a gene drive construct to the natural environment could damage an ecosystem irreversibly. Thus, it is important to understand the spatiotemporal consequences of the super-Mendelian population genetics prior to potential applications. Here, we employ a reaction-diffusion model for sexually reproducing diploid organisms to study how a locally introduced gene drive allele spreads to replace the wild-type allele, even though it posses a selective disadvantage s > 0. Using methods developed by N. Barton and collaborators, we show that socially responsible gene drives require 0.5 < s < 0.697, a rather narrow range. In this "pushed wave" regime, the spatial spreading of gene drives will be initiated only when the initial frequency distribution is above a threshold profile called "critical propagule", which acts as a safeguard against accidental release. We also study how the spatial spread of the pushed wave can be stopped by making gene drives uniquely vulnerable ("sensitizing drive") in a way that is harmless for a wild-type allele. Finally, we show that appropriately sensitized drives in two dimensions can be stopped even by imperfect barriers perforated by a series of gaps.

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