The Pacific has long been appropriated by settler colonial and military powers as a site of experimentation, with detrimental impacts to Indigenous Pacific Islanders and their ancestral lands. Given their perceived isolation and remoteness, islands were targeted for the detonation of nuclear weapons throughout the Cold War era when United States, French, and British governments conducted hundreds of nuclear tests in French Polynesia and Micronesia. The legacy of this experimentation continues in the mobilizing of discourses framing islands as ideal test sites for emerging technologies with unknown risks. This research examines the continuation of these practices and the resistances they provoke, centering on the emerging genetic engineering technology known as gene drive.
Gene drives are genetic engineering techniques that bias inheritance such that specific genetic material can be transmitted to nearly 100% of the offspring of a transgenic organism (See Figure 1). Scientists are using gene drive to develop mosquitoes incapable of transmitting malaria and Zika, and to suppress or eliminate populations of invasive rodents threatening endemic birds, or pest insects carrying crop diseases. However, organisms with gene drive have yet to be released outside secure laboratory settings due to ethical concerns involving regulation and uncertainties regarding potentially irreversible effects on ecosystems. Aiming to contain these risks, scientists and their funders are looking to trial gene drive on islands.
Drawing on the fields of Pacific Studies, Feminist Science Studies, and Indigenous Science, Technology, and Society (Indigenous STS), this presentation will interrogate the spatial logics (i.e., the myth of isolation) at work in framings of islands as ideal test sites for gene drive. It will also draw on ethnographic data to critically analyze extant activities organized under the rubric of “community engagement” by proponents of gene drive seeking authorization for field trials in island communities.
Riley Taitingfong is a PhD candidate in the Department of Communication at UC San Diego and current President’s Dissertation Year Fellow. Her work looks critically at emerging genomic technologies, their entanglements with militarism and settler colonialism, and impacts on Indigenous communities, particularly throughout Oceania. Her current project is an ethnographic study of the development of genetically modified mosquitoes for endemic bird conservation in Hawaiʻi.
Danielle Yorleny Tassara, "RILEY TAITINGFONG, "Engineering Island Laboratories: Gene Drive And the Myth of Isolation"", contributed by Danielle Yorleny Tassara and Kaitlyn Rabach, Center for Ethnography, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 5 February 2020, accessed 9 May 2021.