Genome editing: an ethical review


Published 30/09/2016

Short guide front cover Page 01
Genome editing techniques such as the CRISPR-Cas9 system are transforming many areas of biological research.
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The context of genome editing

Genome editing and emerging biotechnology

The idea of making alterations to DNA is not new, and genome editing shares features with established techniques for genetic modification (e.g. those used to produce GM crops). From one point of view, genome editing is a technical development in this field: a newer and more precise tool for pursuing established objectives. From another point of view, however, genome editing could transform not only the field of biology, but the range of expectations and ambitions about human control over the biological world.

How we think about genome editing and its possibilities informs how the techniques will be developed, applied and controlled. In considering such matters, we must look at a number of factors that bear upon the emergence of genome editing as a technology, for example:

  • The conditions under which it emerges, e.g.:
    • Economic and political conditions such as availability of research funding, influence of intellectual property regimes and government agendas
    • Social conditions such as cultural values and media representations.
  • The possibilities for new biological interventions to which the technologies might give rise.
  • The potential of these possibilities to create new opportunities and to change the ways in which we think about and address challenges such as in healthcare and food production

Public interest

The public has an interest in genome editing, both in terms of its expectation of future social benefits, but also in possible costs and harms. It invests in it both financially (e.g. through state-funded research) and through the trust it places in scientists and innovators to help deliver the hoped-for benefits. More profoundly, there is a public interest in the ways in which different potential uses of genome editing might challenge and affect our moral and cultural values and understandings.

Impact on research

Genome editing, particularly the CRISPR-Cas9 system, has spread rapidly through the biological sciences. It offers a number of advantages: it is versatile, inexpensive, relatively easy to access (kits can be bought online) and to use (it requires biological expertise but does not require highly specialised knowledge or research skills), and it offers the prospect of making precise edits at multiple sites in the genome in a single procedure.

Its efficiency and specificity are comparatively high compared to other methods of genetic alteration, but are not without limitation. One challenge for researchers is the delivery of CRISPR-Cas9 into the target organism. It is often carried in inactive viruses, but there are limits to the size of an additional DNA sequence that a virus can effectively deliver. Another concern is the risk of ‘off-target’ editing at DNA sequences that were not supposed to be changed, though the techniques are continually being improved in this respect, and recent studies have demonstrated high specificity with no detected off-target effects. Strategies to reduce or eliminate mosaicism – where some cells in an organism have incorporated the changes and others have not – are also being developed.

We conclude…

Genome editing is having a transformative effect on biological research, in that:

  • It makes it possible and affordable to do research that was previously not achievable; and
  • It therefore increases the overall rate of research, including:
    • the amount of research that can be done within a set budget.
    • the speed of the research (increasing the overall rate, but also making it possible, for example, to complete in a shorter period of time the kind of project that would not have been possible before within a typical PhD or post-doctoral contract).