Nuffield Council on Bioethics publishes Genome editing: an ethical review


The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has today published the first findings of its programme of work looking at the recent and potential impact of recent advances in genome editing such as the CRISPR-Cas9 system across many areas of biological research.

The Council found evidence that, given its technical advantages and rates of uptake, genome editing is already having an almost unprecedented impact in research. The Council considered factors such as the extent to which the ethical questions raised by applications of the technology are novel, the likelihood of imminent advances in these areas and the possible effects of these advances in fields such as health care, food production, industry and public health.

Genome editing techniques are an essential tool for synthetic biology and while centred around more standard forms of single gene editing, the report acknowledges the field (sections 7.3-7.6) and the use of gene editing in food crops (5.1-5.17)

Synthetic Biology

"Synthetic biologists are self-consciously elaborating a novel field. They see the field as transforming biology as a practical discipline, not only in relation to the adoption of technical innovations, but also epistemically and institutionally (breaking down disciplinary barriers and reimagining biology as an engineering discipline), and socially and politically (e.g. the desire to build a community and to inculcate certain norms, including those of open source publication and responsible innovation practices). While, undoubtedly, genome editing has given a fillip to synthetic biology it does not, however, seem to have the same rhetorical significance here as in other areas of biology. This might be partly attributable to the fact that the natural reservoir of metaphor for synthetic biology is technical (engineering, construction) rather than textual (editing).

Synthetic biology does, however, offer an insight into possible ways of approaching genome editing as an innovation within research and industry that is essentially different to the translational approaches of biomedicine or, again, public health innovations. Owing, in part, to the different cultures that are integral to synthetic biology (e.g. that of computer science) and in part to lessons about innovation learned from the observation of other fields (e.g. nanotechnology), it has been common for synthetic biologists to adopt responsible innovation practices from the outset. These tend to see ethical reflection and social engagement as longitudinally integral to their practice (‘ethical by design’), as both guiding and governing research, rather than as challenges or decisions to be addressed at particular stages."


"Genome editing is currently used in research into plant breeding. Possible commercial uses include improvements in yield and pest resistance, increased drought tolerance, and increased nutritional benefit.

The impact of genome editing techniques is perhaps less revolutionary in plants than in humans, given the already long history of breeding strategies that have changed the genetic characteristics of virtually all crops – including selective breeding and first generation ‘genetically modified’ plants (mainly involving the insertion of genes that do not naturally occur in those plants).

However, genome editing could significantly speed up the progress of breeding programmes. It is thought that genome editing could reduce the time needed to generate the desired genetic characteristics in a plant population from 7-25 years to as few as 2-3 years since its target specificity effectively bypasses the need to go through a number of plant generations to achieve a particular genetic combination.

Depending on the regulatory and economic conditions, it could open up the field to smaller companies and, potentially, drive the development of characteristics other than the main commercially important traits like herbicide resistance."

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