For Genome Editing, Self-Regulation Beats a Government Ban

Image via Shutterstock

Image via Shutterstock

By Meredith Salisbury

A breakthrough method that makes editing the genes of living beings relatively easy, called CRISPR, is much in the news these days. So are the many implications–both terrifying and promising–associated with it. The seemingly endless possibilities of genome editing have even the scientific community on edge, and it’s stirring up heated debate about where the ethical limits are. August organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine just announced that they’ll host a meeting this fall to try to wrestle some of the thorny issues raised by the ability to alter genomes.

At the moment, most of the calls for restraint in the use of CRISPR are coming directly from scientists, but it won’t be long before government officials or candidates hoping to be elected start airing their opinions about how this field should be regulated. It’s worth taking a moment to consider how different modes of oversight could affect the opportunities afforded us by genome editing.

Gene editing has been around for years, but CRISPR is a new version of it. Taken from a mechanism commonly used by bacteria to recognize invading viruses, it has proven remarkably useful and effective in altering other organisms since it was first adapted in 2012. I’ve covered the genomics field for 15 years now and even the most rapidly adopted techniques look slow in comparison to the uptake of CRISPR. Even the scientists who discovered it have been taken aback by its wildfire-like spread through the biomedical community. That speed means the use of genome editing is outpacing our ability as a society to process its ethical implications.

Which is why many scientists have voluntarily hit pause. Genome scientists have a strong history of policing themselves, and it’s to their credit that they have —> Read More