Permanence and Promise in Germline Engineering – Part 2

LilyTakeuchiBy Lily Takeuchi, Graduate Student, Kizhakkedathu Lab

Part 2 of 2 Please note, this post is intended for an audience with a strong scientific background.

In September 2017, a study conducted by researchers at Sun Yat-sen University (Guangzhou, China) demonstrated the feasibility of curing genetic diseases in human embryos through the use of a base editor system to correct β-thalassemia mutant genes. Though still far from reaching repair rates adequate for clinical implementation, the research has garnered significant international attention and concern. As research in germline editing reaches new and exciting frontiers, society is prompted to decide how science can act synergistically with policy to evaluate ethical implications and advance our knowledge of genetic engineering.  The following article is part two of a two part series on the science and ethics of germline engineering.

Permanence in the context of eradicating human disease is undeniably good, yet, in the context of generating unpredictable mutations, is potentially catastrophic. The fear of permanence was once articulated by Columbia University biochemist Erwin Chargaff (1905-2002):

You can stop splitting the atom; you can stop visiting the Moon; you may even decide not to kill entire populations by the use of a few bombs; but you cannot recall a new form of life.

The rise of genetic engineering has long provoked contentious debate within the scientific community. February 1975 marked a new era of public discourse on scientific issues. On the sunny banks of Asilomar Beach, researchers convened to discuss the intentional restriction of their own genetic engineering activities using recombinant DNA. In one of the most notable meetings in scientific history, the Asilomar conference was an event prompted by the simultaneous acknowledgement of potential and peril that came with the ability to create genetic chimeras. Science had begun melding into the domain of technology and it was clear that moving forward, nothing would be clear. In response, the scientists did what they did best: draw hard unequivocal lines to make sense of a muddled world — they wrote the protocols. The conference ended having achieved unification on a set of recommendations concerning the political, biological, and ethical considerations of genetic engineering. Importantly, given its widespread media coverage, researchers gained trust on matters by inviting the public to have a seat at the table and opening the debate to society.

Now, more than 40 years later, stances in the scientific community on genetic engineering have become increasingly charged, as evidenced by a call for a moratorium on germline engineering research published in Nature Comments in March 2015. Like the researchers of Asilomar, the very players at the edge of breakthrough are growing concerned with repeating past scars of science without ethical intervention, such as unjust sterilizations of vulnerable populations and state-promoted eugenics programs. In efforts of caution, 40 countries currently discourage or ban the practice of germline engineering research on human embryos.

The Asilomar meeting teaches us an important lesson: in a complex society with seemingly irreconcilable views, the key to mediation is prioritizing common social values. Ideally, it is not the role of science to direct our norms and values; rather, it is the role of science to develop an adequate understanding of biological, social, and political consequences necessary to make rational choices. The ability to engineer hereditary changes will require us to think about how to enact containment, countermeasures, and reversal in research for ethical investigation. Importantly, it is through synergism of science and morality that we can maximize utility and minimize harms of new technology.

To read Part 1 of this series, click here!


  1. Liang, P.; Ding, C.; Sun, H.; Xie, X.; Xu, Y.; Zhang, X.; Sun, Y.; Xiong, Y.; Ma, W.; Liu, Y.; Wang, Y.; Fang, J.; Liu, D.; Songyang, Z.; Zhou, C.; Huang, J. Correction of β-thalassemia mutant by base editor in human embryos. Protein and Cell. 2017, 8, 11, 811-822.
  2. Komor, A.C.; Kim, Y.B.; Packer, M.S.; Xuris, J.A.; Liu, D.R. Programmable editing of a target base in genomic DNA without double-strand DNA cleavage. 2016, 533, 420.
  3. Lanphier, E.; Urnov, F.; Haecker, S.R.; Werner, M. Smolenski, J. Don’t edit the human germ line. Nature Comment. 2015, 519, 410.

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