Academies and DFG point out limitations and risks of new genome editing techniques

More efficient bacteria and yeasts for use in fuel and drug production, new strategies to combat antibiotic-resistant germs, and innovative plant breeding methods - new molecular biology techniques that permit targeted genetic modification are giving rise to many promising new opportunities in research and application. At the same time, there must be dialogue with society as a whole on the opportunities and limits of these genome editing techniques. The German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, acatech - the National Academy of Science and Engineering, the Union of the German Academies of Sciences and Humanities, and the German Research Foundation (DFG) point this out in a joint statement entitled "The Opportunities and Limits of Genome Editing".

In their statement, the academies and the DFG describe how genome editing works, its current stage of development, its fields of application, and its advantages over conventional gene modification processes. In some areas, the new genome editing techniques are already facilitating more efficient, much more targeted and more controllable genetic modifications. The new methods could be used to develop biotechnological drugs that are capable of killing only very specific pathogens without harming beneficial microorganisms in the human body, as is the case with conventional antibiotics today. Bacteria and yeast, already being used to produce starting products for drugs and fuel, could be optimised through genome editing more efficiently than before. In plant breeding, new varieties could be produced more quickly and with more targeted selection through molecular biological breeding methods. One of the techniques based on genome editing - the gene-drive technique - could even be used to establish genetically modified mosquito populations that are resistant to the malaria and dengue fever viruses, thus effectively curbing the spread of these diseases. But before such interventions in the ecosystem can be made, a thorough safety inspection must be carried out into the effects.

The academies and the DFG stress that the use of genome editing is ethically and legally acceptable in many areas, but also point out its limitations and risks. They endorse the call for an international moratorium on all forms of human germline engineering that could have an impact on the genome of the offspring. In Germany, the relevant research is subject to strict legal regulations. The voluntary moratorium should create an opportunity to discuss and establish a binding framework for ethically and legally responsible research - at international level also. When discussing the potential medical applications of genome editing, it is necessary to distinguish between non-heritable changes in somatic cells and heritable genetic changes in germline cells. But the debate on changes to the human genome is only one aspect of this newly developed area of research. A moratorium should not constitute a general restriction on methodological developments and thus disproportionately limit any promising new genome editing approaches for use in research and application. Germany should be contributing on all levels to the basic research required, as well as helping to ensure the safe and responsible application of genome editing.

The aim of the statement "The Opportunities and Limits of Genome Editing" is to prompt objective dialogue among society as a whole on the scientific, ethical and legal possibilities of genome editing and on its limits and consequences. The DFG and the academies stress that researchers must inform all stakeholders in a clear and transparent manner about the status of research to ensure that any decisions taken are based on sound scientific evidence.


German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina


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