Genetic engineering interventions in evolution require a high level of ethical responsibility

Researchers such as Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna, who was involved in the development of CRISPR/Cas, like to suggest that new genetic engineering (New GE or new genomic techniques, NGT) can be used to technically optimise evolution, and thus adapt it to human needs: “Gone are the days when life was shaped exclusively by the plodding forces of evolution. We are standing on the cusp of a new area, one in which we will have primary authority over life’s makeup and all its vibrant and varied outputs. Indeed, we are already supplanting the deaf, dumb, and blind system that has shaped genetic material on our planet for eons and replacing it with a conscious, intentional system of human-directed evolution.” (Doudna, J.A.; Sternberg, S.H. (2018) A Crack in Creation: The New Power to Control Evolution)

The interrelationships between species conservation, biology and evolution are often disregarded when it comes to interventions in the ‘nature of life’ with (new) genetic engineering. However, the manifold technical potentials and possible New GE applications raise the fundamental question about what happens when these organisms encounter naturally co-evolved networks.

There is the danger that large-scale release and spread of genetically engineered organisms could destabilise ecosystems. If specific tipping points are reached, a chain reaction can develop that could significantly jeopardise the preservation of biodiversity in the future. There is a parallel in the temporal dimension to the dangers of climate change: the course of future developments is being set right now – and will in many cases not be reversible. Many of the decisions made by previous generations can now no longer be corrected. For example, once the sea level has risen by a few metres, even the most effective measures to reduce greenhouse gases will no longer make any difference.

A similar scenario could arise with (new) genetic engineering: if organisms are released that can spread uncontrollably in the environment and disrupt or even destroy natural ecosystems, there is also a risk of exceeding tipping points that make it impossible to return to the previous state and ‘natural’ development dynamics.

Human activity has caused considerable damage to nature ever since industrialisation first began: large parts of biodiversity are now extinct, and more and more species and habitats are under massive threat. Now, (new) genetic engineering techniques could be used to intervene in the very basis of heredity, and thus constitute a massive threat of changing what could be considered the actual ‘nature of life’.

It is a fact that large numbers of New GE organisms across numerous species with a wide range of different traits, could soon be released into the environment within a short period of time. Many could spread uncontrollably, and it is to be expected that complex interactions will occur both between the different New GE organisms and with their environment, possibly creating new kinds of hazards. It is, therefore, important to maintain control over releases of New GE organisms. Against this backdrop, Testbiotech sees the need to carefully examine and limit the type and quantity of organisms released into the environment, in particular, to prevent uncontrolled spread. To maintain this level of control, all genetically engineered organisms must in future be subject to an approval assessment and still be traceable after being brought to market. The concepts of nature conservation and environmental protection are largely based on the principle of avoiding interventions. These concepts must also be applied in the field of genetic engineering. Fundamental reservations against the release of genetically engineered organisms must be given more weight in future.

Further information:
Genetic engineering endangers the protection of species
Environmental risks new genetic engineering

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