Not Your Grandpa’s Biotechnology

Carlos Mariscal and Angel Petropanagos argue that we need to pay more attention to the ethical issues surrounding CRISPR, the new gene editing technology.


This week, researchers met in Washington D.C. to discuss scientific advancements in gene editing technologies. On the agenda was a new gene editing system called CRISPR. CRISPR is like a pair of scissors for cutting genes. By using various proteins, it can locate, insert, delete, edit, silence, or express any specific gene.

Whereas previous gene editing techniques were laborious, inefficient, and imprecise, The CRISPR system is easy, fast, precise, accurate, and relatively cheap. It makes gene editing more accessible than ever before.

CRISPR can be used to alter the genetic material in any organism at any stage of development. It could be used on somatic cells to alter the genes in an individual organism and on germ (reproductive) cells to alter the genetic material of future generations.

14342954637_6afbdcf536_o_dPublic attention fell on CRISPR earlier this year when Chinese researchers announced they had used this technology on (non-viable) human embryos. This was the first human germline application of CRISPR. Reactions have been mixed.

Some people see CRISPR as a scientific breakthrough and as a potential cure for various human diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, AIDS, and sickle cell anemia.

Others worry that using CRISPR on humans leads us down the path to eugenics. By making changes to the germline, scientists could control what genetic material was passed on to future generations, a practice which some imagine could lead to racist, classist, or merely unwise modifications of future human generations.

Since the Chinese announcement of the use CRISPR on human embryos, there have been several calls for a moratorium on the editing of human embryos for clinical purposes, including calls from fellows of the National Academy of Sciences, several German scientific groups, and several UNESCO scientists.

In addition, the National Academies of Sciences organized two meetings, co-hosted by British and Chinese academies. The first meeting, which occurred this week in Washington, focused on the science behind CRISPR.

The second meeting, which will occur in December, focuses on the development of an international document outlining the current science and ethical concerns surrounding gene editing technologies.

Getting clear on the science behind CRISPR is important. So is developing an international guideline for gene editing. But the National Academy of Science’s meetings seem to have overlooked how much work and ethical expertise it will take to identify and assess the ethical issues surrounding CRISPR. We worry that ethics has taken and will continue to take a back seat to science in discussions about CRISPR. We worry that existing ethical frameworks are not equipped to manage new gene editing technology.

The reason is simple: CRISPR is not like previous biotechnologies. The ethical frameworks were developed for dealing with IVF, cloning, and stem cell research aren’t equipped to deal with the novel ethical concerns raised by CRISPR. Here are some examples:

First, CRISPR can introduce novel variations in germlines, making permanent biological changes to future generations. This may be uncontroversial when it comes to preventing life-threatening diseases, but controlled human evolution has been suggested many times since Darwin, often with permanent, racist, and disastrous consequences.

Second, CRISPR could selectively alter other traits such as skin, hair, or eye color. We could soon live in a future in which genetic traits could become commodities or fashion trends. It may even be possible for people to edit their own genomes at home.

Third, CRISPR can be used in any living species, including plants and non-human animals. This has huge ecological consequences. It may be possible to drive a species to extinction or reverse the extinction of other species. The impacts of CRISPR are as far reaching as life itself.

Fourth, CRISPR can also be used for military and intelligence. For example, it could be used to untraceably insert hidden messages in living tissue in order to carry information across borders.

While it may be speculative to worry about such dystopian uses for biotechnology, the scientific scope, possible societal consequences, and ethical import of CRISPR is not analogous to past biotechnologies. CRISPR’s scientific and ethical boundaries are largely unknown.

So when National Academy of Science’s meeting happens in December, the American, British, and Chinese academies should ensure that discussions about CRISPR are not limited to human therapeutic interventions or standard ethical concerns. Nor should the scientists, ethicists, and public policy experts discuss these topics without input from other groups.

We suggest that a team of interdisciplinary and interprofessional experts is needed to identify the potential ethical concerns and regulatory solutions related to CRISPR. More importantly, we suggest that public consultation is needed to identify the range of social values and ideologies that can drive the ethical development and regulation of CRISPR.


Carlos Mariscal is a Herzberg Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and the Department of Philosophy at Dalhousie University. @proflos

Angel Petropanagos is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Novel Tech Ethics at Dalhousie University. @APetropanagos


  1. Carlos & Angel · · Reply

    Hi Jackie,
    Thank you for your comment. We agree with much of what you say: there are many people concerned with the ethical aspects of CRISPR, we should keep in mind past ethical discussions as we encounter new problems, and we likely won’t be able to predict many ethical issues until they have already occurred.

    Nevertheless, last week’s meeting, which included many leading scientists using CRISPR, was noticeably dismissive of many ethical considerations. Their focus was largely on the scientific/ medical benefits of gene therapy. Although ethical issues and uncertainties surrounding CRISPR have been the focus of public commentary, many of the participants at this meeting seemed as though they already knew all of the ethical issues surrounding CRISPR. We are concerned because the leading scientists working on CRISPR did not seem interested in discussing the ethical issues or engaging with bioethicists.

    In addition, we are concerned the discussion of CRISPR has focused too heavily on human therapeutic applications. In our commentary, we raised four other issues not raised in the meeting (though many have been discussed elsewhere in related contexts). We have no doubt that other issues will come up. Going forward, we hope that scientific discussions of CRISPR will be more inclusive and take a full range of ethical concerns more seriously.

  2. While I fully agree with the conclusions in the final two paragraphs here, I’m not so sure about “We worry that ethics has taken and will continue to take a back seat to science in discussions about CRISPR. We worry that existing ethical frameworks are not equipped to manage new gene editing technology.” For one thing, the first suggestions that difficult ethical issues might be at play followed very quickly after the first announcements of the CRISPR technology — so ‘we’ were worrying about them from the outset. Furthermore, bioethics already has an *extensive* track record of examining the general sorts of issues (for example, the 4 key issues identified in the post) that genetic manipulation raises, dating back to the 1980s if not earlier. So what we mustn’t do is ignore all that and somehow start reinventing the (ethical) wheel. We can build on a lot of good work done, in the abstract, before the technology became feasible.

    I say ‘general sorts of issues’ because what is equally true is that CRISPR, if indeed it fulfils its current potential, is likely to generate ethical and other consequences that we can’t imagine in advance. This is what has already been seen with other biomedical advances, where we’ve thought we knew what the big problems were going to be; often, they turned out to be less worrisome than something completely unexpected. That’s why we need not just input from many disciplines, and public consultation, but — if it goes ahead — a close empirical eye on what turns out to be the real points of ethical and other difficulty.

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