Researchers advocate open discourse on genome editing

David Taylor and Jennifer Doudna/UC Berkeley/Courtesy

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On March 19, researchers led by campus professor of chemistry and molecular and cell biology Jennifer Doudna published an article advocating open discourse regarding the use of technology that can manipulate the human genome.

The CRISPR-Cas9 system, co-invented by Doudna, allows molecular biologists to modify genomes in two ways: by enabling changes to DNA sequences that correct genetic defects in whole organisms and by changing an organism’s “germline” — altering the DNA in nuclei of reproductive cells, which transmit information between generations. By altering the genetic makeup of differentiated cells in an organism or by changing the germline, researchers can ensure that changes to specific DNA sequences will be passed to the next generation.

In January, Doudna attended a conference in Napa, California, to discuss the ethical, scientific and medical implications of genomic engineering technology, which could be used to “reshape the biosphere for the benefit of the environment and human societies,” according to the article. The objective of the meeting was to start a discussion about the next steps to ensure that the technology is used safely and ethically.

Co-authors of the article, which was published online in the journal Science, include campus professor of biochemistry, biophysics and structural biology Michael Botchan and Stanford University professor emeritus of biochemistry Paul Berg, both of whom attended the conference.

Botchan compared the ethics of the gene-editing technology to an automobile. He said a car can be used to rob a bank or take someone to the hospital, just as the genome technology can be used for beneficial or detrimental reasons.

“What we are calling for is a moratorium until we understand the potential detrimental things that can happen … and the public is fully aware of what the possibilities are,” Botchan said. “This is not something to be afraid of, but something to discuss.”

Berg said that the technology has a “very powerful utility to correct genetic defects” and that the article starts the “ball rolling for discussion.”

“Once you change the germline, future generations (of an organism) will reflect that change,” Berg said. “You really can’t predict the consequences by removing a mutation from a germline. This is an issue not just for the scientists and the patients — it affects future generations.”

Berg said that during a conference in Napa, Doudna and fellow researchers discussed starting a discourse on the ethics and permissibility of germline modification. Though Berg said there is no need for a moratorium, as the technique is prohibited in all developed nations, he said that until further discussion, scientists should refrain from doing genome modification in areas where there is no mechanism for approving or disapproving it.

Robert Tooke is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @robertono_t.