Project news

May 21, 2015

Public Reaction Mixed on New Technology to Edit DNA, But Caution Urged for Researchers

A new poll finds Americans ambivalent about an emerging technology that allows for precise genetic edits to be made to human and animal DNA and passed down from generation to generation, but many support a moratorium on human-based research until safeguards can be put into place.  

According to the poll, 43 percent of respondents say the gene-editing technology is “both a positive and a negative development,” while 18 percent believe it to be a “positive” advancement and 12 percent think it is a “negative” development. The survey also finds that more than a quarter of respondents do not feel that they know enough to have an opinion about this technology.

The full poll results can be found here:

The national online poll of 1,018 adults was funded by the Wilson Center’s Synthetic Biology Project and conducted May 14-17, 2015 by Hart Research Associates. 

There is also support for a moratorium on the use of these techniques in humans until ethical guidelines and safety controls can be put into place. According to the poll, 72 percent of respondents favor or lean towards favoring a temporary research ban. This support outnumbers opposition across all demographic groups surveyed.   

“The survey provides some initial evidence that there would be public support for scientists and others who are advocating for a moratorium on human germ line modification until the ethical and safety issues can be sorted out,” says David Rejeski, director of the Synthetic Biology Project.

The poll follows a much publicized experiment in China in April, when scientists unsuccessfully tried to modify genes in nonviable human embryos. Following that experiment, the National Institutes of Health in the United States said it would not fund research using the gene-editing technology in human embryos and some scientists have started calling for a moratorium into further gene-editing of human embryos.

Almost 80 percent of respondents provided feedback about their feelings towards the technology in an open-ended question. “This has the possibility to eliminate some genetically transmitted disorders,” writes one respondent. Another respondent cautions, “People should not be engineered for convenience.”

Many respondents initially did not feel they knew enough about the technology to have an opinion about it. When pressed, 62 percent of respondents overall think or lean towards thinking the gene-editing technology is “both a positive and a negative development,” according to the poll.  

There are already plans to use these techniques in non-human applications, such as modifying mosquitoes in an attempt to curb diseases like Dengue fever. The Food and Drug Administration is currently considering whether modified mosquitoes can be released in a test project in the Florida Keys.