Ban on gene-edited babies proposed
Temporary moratorium would allow for further scientific testing
BY TINA HESMAN SAEY
Eighteen researchers, including two
CRISPR pioneers, are calling for a temporary ban on creating gene-edited babies.
“We call for a global moratorium on
all clinical uses of human germline editing — that is, changing heritable DNA (in
sperm, eggs or embryos) to make genetically modified children,” the statement’s
cosigners, who come from seven countries, wrote in the March 14 Nature.
Among the signatories are CRISPR
pioneers Feng Zhang of the Broad
Institute of MIT and Harvard University
and Emmanuelle Charpentier of the
Max Planck Unit for the Science of
Pathogens in Berlin.
The proposed moratorium would last
about five years to give time for public
education and debate about experiments.
The delay would buy time for scientists
to further test and refine CRISPR/Cas9
and other gene-editing tools to make
them safer. The moratorium would also
be voluntary, with a country pledging
individually not to allow clinical trials
for creating gene-edited children. Countries would make independent decisions
on how long such a ban should last.
Gene editing of embryos, eggs and
sperm would still be allowed for research
purposes, but they couldn’t be used to
establish a pregnancy. Researchers could
still use gene editors to treat genetic diseases in adults and children, provided
that any changes couldn’t be passed on
to the next generation.
Some scientists and ethicists have previously called making gene-edited babies
“irresponsible.” A 2017 report commissioned by the U.S. National Academies
of Sciences and Medicine (SN: 3/18/17,
p. 7), plus two international conferences
on genome editing in 2015 and 2018
(SN: 12/26/15, p. 12; SN: 12/22/18 & 1/5/19,
p. 20), concluded that heritable gene editing is not ready for clinical use and should
wait until the technology matures and
there’s public consensus on it.
The big difference now is the term
“moratorium,” says bioethicist Alta
Charo of the University of Wisconsin–
Madison Law School. “In which case,
there is no real daylight, only a dictionary, between the authors of the Nature
Still, those previous admonitions
didn’t stop Chinese scientist Jiankui He
from editing embryos that resulted in
the birth of two babies last year. Other
researchers who knew about He’s plans
didn’t stop him.
“Given that both conferences declared
as irresponsible this kind of experiment,
but in fact, it went ahead, says that we
needed a little bit more than just clucking at the end of things,” says Paul Berg,
a molecular geneticist at Stanford
University School of Medicine.
Berg, who helped author the new pro-
posal, admits the call is mostly a matter
of semantics but argues that word choice
matters. “If everyone is saying it would
be irresponsible to do it, then why not be
explicit and say it should not be done?”
Other scientists aren’t sure the
proposed moratorium will stop rogue sci-
entists from copying He’s actions. “I don’t
think someone will say, ‘Oh, someone
said moratorium, I really can’t do that
now,’ ” says Stephan Guttinger, a philos-
opher of biology at the London School of
Economics and Political Science.
But Russ Altman, a bioengineer at
Stanford University, says it may be easier
to get a moratorium to stick after He’s
breach. “It will be harder to find a harbor
of safety” for researchers who violate the
ban, Altman says. “Now a ban will have
a bigger weight of scientific credibility
and would be more likely to be obeyed.”
A moratorium, he says, would have
“the force of moral authority,” even if it
doesn’t have legal weight. s
Editor’s Note: Feng Zhang is on the Board
of Trustees of Society for Science & the
Public, which publishes Science News.
LIFE & EVOLUTION
are under threat
Human encroachment may
endanger cultural behaviors
B Y SUJATA GUPTA
From deep inside chimpanzee territory,
the fieldworkers heard loud bangs and
shouts. Hidden video cameras later
revealed what the chimps in the Boé
region of Guinea-Bissau were up to.
Males were throwing rocks at trees and
Researchers don’t fully understand
why the apes engage in this rare behavior. And scientists may not have much
time to sort out what’s going on.
Africa’s chimpanzees are under threat
from deforestation and poaching. Those
and other human activities may also be
affecting chimp behaviors, Ammie Kalan
and colleagues report online March 7 in
Science. These behaviors include ones
that many primatologists view as evidence of chimp culture — behaviors that
are learned socially and transmitted
Such traditions as cave dwelling, using
sticks to dig for honey and cracking nuts
with stones are far less likely to occur
in areas most impacted by humans,
compared with more remote chimp territories, the researchers found in a large
analysis of chimp behavior.
“Everyone thinks that if populations
are declining … there would be some loss
in the transmission chain that leads to
Among wild chimpanzees,
breaking open nuts with a
stone hammer is seen only in
Africa’s westernmost groups.