A scientific gamechanger

Commercially available since 2012, CRISPR-Cas9 (CRISPR) edits genes by cutting DNA and letting natural processes repair those divides. This allows scientists to add, remove or alter particular parts of an organism’s genome. Think of it as a geneticist’s “copy and paste” tool. More precise and inexpensive than previous genome engineering, the attributes that make it widespread in the scientific community also expedite the need for ethical consensus among users.

“What happens when the preventive interventions you imagine raise the same kinds of ethical questions that enhancements do?” asked Eric Juengst, director of the UNC Center for Bioethics. “Questions about equal access, effects on the downstream generations, and effects on what it means to be human.”

Juengst explores these and other ethical quandaries as they relate to this gene-editing tool. His work focuses on research ethics — questions raised by new advances in science and technology. He and his colleague, Jean Cadigan, are leading a project that will survey scientists about the professional and social factors that shape the trajectories of using CRISPR in preventive human genome editing, as well as analyzing national and international policy.

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