Implications of gene editing non-human organisms

February 9, 2016

The prospect of gene editing has brought on a controversial debate about the ethics of human modification, prompting much news coverage and commentary. But according to The University of Manchester's Professor Matthew Cobb, a far more pressing issue is raised by the modification of non-human organisms. BBC Radio Four today broadcasts a documentary by Professor Cobb called 'Editing Life', on the scientific, ethical and ecological implications of the gene editing technique called CRISPR. Here he lays out his argument and calls for international consensus on the issue.

"CRISPR is transforming biological and medical research, and has controversial potential for altering humans and the natural world. This new way of editing genes presents the whole of humanity with major challenges.

"The technique enables scientists to precisely alter the genes of any organism – changing just a single letter of a genetic code at will, removing whole genes, or even introducing new stretches of DNA, enabling the organism to produce new proteins, or carry out new tasks.

"Unquestionably, it is going to change our world, even if it is never used on humans, and even if no CRISPR modified organisms are released into the wild. It is going to alter the pace of scientific discovery in the laboratory in unprecedented and unpredictable ways. But the real challenges of CRISPR are not scientific, they are ethical and political."

All the focus so far has been on the issues raised by CRISPR modification of humans, which is indeed ethically challenging and potentially life-changing for hundreds of thousands of people around the world.

"But I think that a far more pressing and far-reaching issue is raised by CRISPR-modified organisms. This approach clearly has amazing potential, but what organisms should be targeted, and who should decide if and when to release them?

"We need some kind of international agreement, based on careful study and continual ecological monitoring, coupled with the rights of local communities to veto such projects if they so desire.

"Getting such an international framework will require scientific understanding on the part of the whole population, and political will. Right now, we are a long way from there."

Explore further: Game-changing technology enables faster, cheaper gene editing

More information: The  broadcast will be available on Listen Again here:

Related Stories

Game-changing technology enables faster, cheaper gene editing

September 9, 2015

Within the past few years, a new technology has made altering genes in plants and animals much easier than before. The tool, called CRISPR/Cas9 or just CRISPR, has spurred a flurry of research that could one day lead to hardier ...

Will gene editing create designer babies?

February 3, 2016

On Feb. 1, Britain's fertility regulator approved the country's first research application to use a new gene editing technique known as Crispr on human embryos.

Gene-editing is Science mag's breakthrough of 2015

December 17, 2015

A gene-editing technique known as CRISPR was named Thursday by the influential US journal Science as 2015's breakthrough of the year, due to its potential to revolutionize health and medicine.

Scientists use CRISPR technology to edit crop genes

November 30, 2015

CRISPR gene-editing is allowing rapid scientific advances in many fields, including human health and now it has been shown that crop research can also benefit from this latest exciting technology.

Recommended for you

How a fungus inhibits the immune system of plants

October 27, 2016

A newly discovered protein from a fungus is able to suppress the innate immune system of plants. This has been reported by research teams from Cologne and Würzburg in the journal Nature Communications.

'Neighbor maps' reveal the genome's 3-D shape

October 27, 2016

A group coordinated by SISSA Trieste has built a 3-D computer model of the human genome. The shape of DNA (and its sequence) affects biological processes and is crucial for understanding its function. The study has provided ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.