Is human life purposeful

Intervene in a targeted manner in the genetic make-up

What is genome editing?

The collective term "genome editing" summarizes the use of molecular biological tools that allow targeted intervention in the genetic material of microorganisms, plant, animal or human cells. By editing the genome, individual genes can be specifically changed - for example inserted, removed or switched off.

What is CRISPR / Cas?

The gene scissors CRISPR / Cas is a new tool for genome editing. It has its origin in bacteria that fight off viruses with the help of CRISPR / Cas. In the past seven years since its discovery, this bacterial system has been further developed for genome editing in plants, animals and humans. Because the tools are comparatively easy to use and effective, they are used in molecular biology laboratories around the world.

How safe is the CRISPR / Cas technology?

CRISPR / Cas works very precisely. Nevertheless, unwanted changes can occur even when using these gene scissors. For this reason, the scientists have to carefully check with each modified cell whether the genetic material has been modified in the desired location.

What are the advantages of genome editing?

In humans, targeted manipulation of the genome will in future be able to effectively treat many genetic diseases. This applies to diseases of the blood system, for example. In addition, the treatment of hereditary diseases is also being researched. Agriculture could also benefit from genome editing - for example through new plant varieties that are more resistant to pests or drought.

Is genome editing already being used in Germany?

So far, no therapies based on genome editing have been approved in Germany. However, the first clinical studies are currently underway to test the success of such therapies, for example in leukemia or the blood disease beta-thalassemia. If these studies come to a positive result, the first therapies could be approved in a few years.
In plant breeding in particular, the development of genome-edited varieties is currently associated with legal uncertainty. Last year the European Court of Justice ruled that plant varieties modified by genome editing also fall under the strict European genetic engineering law. This should apply even if - in contrast to conventional genetic engineering - no foreign genome segments have been inserted and the genetic change caused cannot be distinguished from conventionally generated changes. Genetic engineering law provides for, among other things, very high hurdles and strict obligations to provide evidence for the placing on the market and the release of genetically modified organisms.

Is it conceivable that the genetic make-up of human germ cells and embryos will also be interfered with in Germany in the near future?

The Embryo Protection Act currently prohibits interventions of this kind in Germany. The international scientific community also considers the clinical use of genome editing in the human germline to be irresponsible at the moment. In a current statement, the German Ethics Council clearly denied that the germ line was categorically inviolable. However, he has clearly spoken out in favor of a moratorium: until further notice, no clinical trials of a germline change should be carried out.

What are the challenges associated with the application of genome editing?

Challenges arise in particular when the long-term consequences of such interventions are difficult to assess. The gene drive systems based on CRISPR / Cas are an example of this. They increase the likelihood that individual genes will be passed on to the offspring. The system could be used, for example, to combat or eradicate pests - such as mosquitoes that spread malaria. The possible consequences of such interventions in the ecosystems can, however, be far-reaching. The release of organisms modified by means of gene drives therefore requires, among other things, an extensive risk assessment.

What contribution does the ELSA research of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research make?

Whether and to what extent genome editing technologies should be used is not just a question of security. Their commitment must also be supported by society. With the ELSA research, the BMBF is therefore promoting the discussion of the ethical, legal and social aspects of genome editing. A special feature of ELSA research is the close cooperation between the humanities and social sciences as well as the life sciences - involving and in dialogue with the public.

*ELSA: "Ethical Legal and Social Aspects"