Science Discussion: Last week a team of scientists in China announced that they used the genome editing technology CRISPR-Cas9 to alter the DNA of human embryos, resulting in the birth of twin girls. Let’s discuss the technology and ethics of this development!


Hi reddit! Last week, researchers announced at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing that they had altered the genomes of twin girls using CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing approaches. This marks the first time that we know of that this technology has been used to modify humans.

He Jiankui had previously presented work on genome editing in human, monkey, and mouse embryos at a scientific meeting in 2017, but he had made no indication at the time that he intended to use the altered embryos to initiate a pregnancy.

Based on the announcement last week, He Jiankui’s institution, Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, issued a statement indicating that it had been unaware of the research and that this work had “seriously violated academic ethics and codes of conduct.” Rice University has also launched an ethics investigation into He Jiankui's doctoral advisor and collaborator, Michael Deem, who is a professor in bioengineering.

The research has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed paper, so many details of the results remain unknown at this time. It is important to note that gene editing with CRISPR is also being actively pursued in the United States to help correct severe genetic diseases - the company Editas Medicine recently received FDA approval for a clinical trial for a CRISPR-based treatment for LCA10, a rare form of blindness.

To answer your questions about this news we have guests from George Church’s lab at Harvard who are experts in gene editing technology, and a prominent ethicist from Vanderbilt University.

Ellen Clayton, MD, JD (u/Ellen_Clayton): I am a general pediatrician and law professor who focuses on ethical, legal, and social issues raised by genetics. I was a member of the NASEM committee on gene editing.

Eriona Hysolli, PhD (u/Eriona_Hysolli): I am a postdoc in the Church lab exploring multiplex gene editing for mammoth de-extinction.

Cory Smith, PhD (u/Cory_Smith_PhD): I am a postdoctoral research fellow working in the Church lab on synthetic biology technology development for Genome Project write. One of my research aims is to improve the delivery, efficiency, and safety of current DNA editors including CRISPR/Cas9, TALENs, AAV, and Base Editors to overcome the current limitations preventing multiplex engineering at genome-wide scale in mammalian cells.

Additional Assets


This article and its reviews are distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and redistribution in any medium, provided that the original author and source are credited.