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Professor John Dupre will chair a new inquiry into the implications of altering the genes of farm animals.

Exeter expert urges scrutiny of genome editing

New methods of genome editing which could increase food production rates in farmed animals require urgent ethical scrutiny, according to a University of Exeter expert.

Professor John Dupre, Professor of Philosophy of Science will chair a new inquiry into the implications for society, the economy and politics if the genes of animals such as pigs, sheep, cattle and chickens are altered.

Professor Dupre, who is Director of Egenis, the Centre for the Study of Life Sciences, will lead the Nuffield Council on Bioethics Working Party on genome editing in livestock.  

The inquiry has been set up to examine whether this can contribute to finding sustainable ways of increasing food production in order to feed a growing world population, for example, by increasing animal meat yield or reproductive capacity, or improving disease resistance and welfare in intensively reared animals.

The council will look at the recent and potential impact of recent advances in genome editing such as the CRISPR-Cas9 system.

This is one of two new Nuffield Council inquiries that will explore the ethical and practical questions raised by possible uses of genome editing in different fields. The other will focus on the potential use of genome editing in human reproduction to avoid the transmission of heritable genetic conditions.

The Working Party led by Professor Dupre expects to complete its work next autumn.

Professor Dupre said: “Genome editing calls into question the distinction between genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and non-GMO foods, which are regulated quite differently at present.

“In our inquiry on livestock we want to look at the issues from the starting point of the societal challenge that we face in feeding a growing world population and ask whether and how new genome technologies should contribute to meeting that challenge. We will be seeking views from a wide range of people to inform our deliberations and recommendations”.  

The Council has found evidence that, because of its technical advantages and rates of uptake, genome editing is already having an almost unprecedented impact in research.

Dr Andy Greenfield, Chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics Working Group who conducted an initial review of the ethics of genome editing across a range of areas of research, said: “Genome editing is already showing a potential to transform not only how biological research is carried out, but more importantly our expectations and ambitions for addressing challenges such as disease prevention and food security. Although most uses so far have been in research, the potential applications seem to be almost unlimited, given that the techniques are applicable to all organisms, from bacteria to plants, animals, and human beings.”

Date: 30 September 2016

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