In DepthBioethics

Embryo engineering alarm

Science  20 Mar 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6228, pp. 1301
DOI: 10.1126/science.347.6228.1301

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Asilomar. The word conjures up not only stunning California coastline but also vexing questions posed by new, potentially world-changing technologies. In 1975, the Asilomar conference center hosted a meeting where biologists crafted guidelines for research that altered the DNA of living organisms. Now scientists are calling for another Asilomar—this time to discuss the possibility of genetically engineered human beings. In 1975, the notion of using recombinant DNA to design human babies was too remote to seriously consider, but the explosion of powerful new genome-editing technologies such as CRISPR-Cas9, zinc fingers, and TALENs has changed that. They have made it easy for anyone with basic molecular biology training to insert, remove, and edit genes in cells, including sperm, eggs, and embryos, potentially curing genetic diseases or adding desirable traits. Rumors are rife that scientists in China have already used CRISPR on human embryos. Researchers fear that publicity surrounding such experiments could trigger a public backlash that would block legitimate uses of the technology. In two commentaries, one published online in Science on 19 March and one in Nature on 12 March, two groups of scientists recommend what steps the scientific community could take to ensure the technology would be used safely and ethically.

  • * With reporting by Jocelyn Kaiser, Dennis Normile, and Christina Larson.