Genetic technologies

Reading, interpreting and editing genetic material is getting faster, cheaper, and more precise. Using the power of genetic technologies in living things has enormous implications and raises important ethical issues for discussion, so it is important they are used appropriately and society is involved in the big decisions about their use.

What are genetic technologies?

Every living organism on the planet carries DNA in its cells. Contained within DNA are sets of instructions, or genes, to build the proteins that a cell needs to function. We inherit these genes from our parents and small differences between them contribute to unique physical features such as eye colour and height.

It is now possible to read the code, or sequence, in a strand of DNA to identify the genes we carry and understand what they do. Scientists can also create new pieces of genetic material and even add, remove or replace sections of DNA to edit genes. Taken together, these are known as genetic technologies. They offer enormous power to learn more about diseases, develop new varieties of plants to improve food crops, or even fix genetic faults that cause inherited conditions.

But the potential benefits of genetic technologies must also be weighed against ethical and societal concerns about how they might be used. Effective regulation and ethical boundaries are essential.

Since the first comprehensive human genome was published in 2003, the time and cost of mapping  genetic information have plummeted. This has transformed our ability to look at the DNA of individual patients to help diagnose inherited disorders or make predictions about their predisposition to certain conditions. Developments in gene editing also make it possible to correct errors within DNA that cause disease. But both the information obtained from genetic testing and editing to change DNA require careful use.

In 2015, the Royal Society and other national academies held the first of three international summits to discuss human genome editing, along with the ethical and governance issues it presents. Since then, the first treatments using genome editing have been licenced for use in patients, while an illegal use of the technology leading to the birth of the first genetically edited babies was announced in November 2018. 

While gene editing has the potential to make radical improvements to human health, it also has the potential to be misused. A public dialogue commissioned by the Royal Society in 2017 concluded that most participants were comfortable with the technology being used to treat disease, but were opposed to editing traits relating to appearance, such as eye colour, or attributes such as strength or intelligence, especially if done in a way that would affect not just the individual but their descendants too (heritable human genome editing).

As part of an international commission of Academies of sciences and medicine from around the world, the Royal Society has helped to draw up principles and standards for the clinical use of genome editing of human embryos. In its report published in 2019, the commission urged that human embryos with edited genomes should not be used to create a pregnancy until the reliability and safety of the procedures have been established.

Gene editing could also be misused to alter the DNA of microbes to create new or more infectious diseases. 

As new genetic technologies emerge, there will need to be a balance between ensuring patients can benefit from them while ensuring they are safe to use and appropriately regulated. Heritable genetic editing will require international oversight. The Royal Society aims to inform and support the public discussion on genetic technologies in the UK and internationally.

The insights provided by genetic research have helped plant breeders to create new varieties of agricultural and horticultural plants. Whilst plant breeders can use a range of approaches to introduce new genetics into their best varieties, technologies such as genome editing enable this faster and more cheaply than traditional breeding. In 2023, the UK Government passed legislation that sought to reduce the regulatory barriers to using genetic technologies such as genome editing in agriculture. 

However this legislation left genetic changes that involve the movement of genes between species in a regulatory framework that has historically been too expensive for academics and small companies to commercialise their research. This is significant as some plant-breeding outcomes, such as crops that are less dependent on pesticides and fertilisers, can only be achieved by moving genes between species. The Royal Society's policy briefing, Enabling genetic technologies for food security, sets out how the flexibility within this regulatory framework can be used to allow GM crops to bring additional benefits for human health, agricultural productivity and the environment.

There have been, however, long running debates about the use of genetically modified (GM) crops, both in terms of their impact on human health and the environment. The Royal Society works to promote debate at all levels in the UK about how genetic modification and gene editing techniques can be used, including by providing expert answers to key questions. 

While most research using genetic technologies has focused on human health and domesticated species, there are some applications involving wild species, such as synthetic “gene drives” as a way of eradicating insect-borne diseases or to control pests and invasive species. Gene drives occur naturally, but scientists have been creating synthetic versions that can be used to edit the genes of mosquitoes, for example, to prevent them from transmitting malaria. They could also be used to help trees adapt more rapidly to climate change. But the consequences of introducing gene drives into local ecosystems needs to be fully explored, so it is important that research is appropriately governed and debated. The Royal Society works at national and international levels to inform and enable debate around genetic technologies. 

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