Americans support genetically engineering animals for people’s health

But survey respondents weren’t OK with tweaking animal genes for looks and convenience

glowing aquarium fish

FISHY WORK In a poll of American’s attitudes toward genetically tweaking animals, three out of four respondents said introducing genes to make aquarium fish like these glow was “taking technology too far.”

Serhii Shcherbyna/Shutterstock

Scientists have the power to genetically engineer many types of animals. Most Americans think it’s OK to alter or insert genes in animals and insects — provided it’s done in the interest of human health, according to a poll released August 16 from the Pew Research Center. The findings are similar to those from an earlier Pew survey, which found that a majority of Americans are fine with tweaking a baby’s genes, but only if it is to prevent disease.

In the new survey, a majority of respondents support engineering animals for the benefit of human health. For instance, 70 percent approve of preventing the spread of disease by reducing mosquitoes’ fertility (SN Online: 8/5/16), and 57 percent are on board with engineering animals to be organ donors for humans (SN: 11/2/17, p. 15). But people are not as comfortable with genetically manipulating animals for cosmetic or convenience reasons. A majority of respondents — 55 percent — object to genetically tweaking animal to produce more nutritious meat, saying that crosses a line.

The results, based on a survey of 2,537 U.S. adults from April 23 to May 6, reveal the mixed feelings people have about this emerging biotechnology.

Harvesting organs

Of the 41 percent opposed to genetically engineering animals to grow organs or tissue for human transplant, 21 percent said they worried about harm to the animals. Only 16 percent said they were worried about potential human health risks.

Extinct means extinct

Bringing species back from extinction didn’t sit well with 67 percent of respondents, who balked at the idea of altering a living species to revive one no longer in existence (SN: 10/28/17, p. 28). Of that group,18 percent said species are extinct for a reason; 23 percent said it messes with nature or God’s plan; and 14 percent said it’s a waste of resources. Only 4 percent said they were afraid it would create a “Jurassic Park scenario,” in which the de-extinct animals would run amok and kill people.

No to the glow

Engineering aquarium fish to make them glow got the thumbs down from 77 percent of respondents, who gave a variety of reasons: 48 percent of that group said it was a waste of resources, including 23 percent who said it offered no benefit to people or the fish and 13 percent who called it “frivolous.” Only 2 percent worried about how the fish could affect ecosystems if they were released into the wild.

Messing with mosquitoes

Though a majority supported engineering mosquitoes to improve public health, 29 percent disapproved. Of those, 23 percent worried about potential effects on other species, 23 percent were concerned about upsetting nature’s balance and 18 percent mentioned unintended consequences. Only 2 percent expressed worry about making mosquitoes extinct.

Tina Hesman Saey

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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