Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Germline Tinkering Sparks More Controversy

By Michael Cook

The ability to “edit” the genome has already seen Chinese scientists accidentally introduce mutations into human embryos.

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The single most controversial development in biology in 2015 is a relatively cheap, easily manipulated technology for modifying the human genome. Called Crispr, this tool allows scientists to “edit” the genome by deleting or adding DNA sequences. In just a couple of years, frenetic activity in labs around the world has taught scientists how to target and activate or silence specific genes.

The implications for plant, animal and human biology are immense. For humans, Crispr opens up a panorama of dramatic cures – and even enhancement of the human genome.

But it is also quite troubling. Gene editing with Crispr only began in 2013, but within 2 years it was already clear that the ethical questions hanging over it were huge.

Tinkering with the human germline has been off-limits for decades. Since the 1970s there has been a consensus that scientists should not “play God” by creating “designer babies”. This has been codified in UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights, which states that germ-line interventions “could be contrary to human dignity”.

However, it appears that the established consensus by scientists on an impossibility started to break up as soon as it became possible.

In March two statements appeared in the world’s leading science journals. In Nature, Edward Lanphier, a leading figure in Crispr-related...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.