Pressing pause on gene editing

This exercise is a part of Educator Guide: Ban on Gene-edited Babies Proposed / View Guide

Directions: After students read the article “Ban on gene-edited babies proposed,” have them answer the questions below.

1. What is a moratorium? What are the specifics of the one described in the article?

A moratorium is a temporary ban on the use or application of something. In the proposed moratorium, scientists wouldn’t be allowed to edit the genes of eggs, sperm or embryos to make genetically modified children for about five years.

2. What, according to the article, would still be allowed under the proposed moratorium?

Scientists could still use this type of gene editing for research and could still treat diseases by editing genes that don’t get passed on to future generations.  

3. From the context provided, what is CRISPR?

A type of gene-editing tool that is still being tested and refined.

4. Who is calling for the ban and why is their support important?

Eighteen scientists, including Feng Zhang and Emmanuelle Charpentier, are calling for the ban. The support of Zhang and Charpentier is important because they helped pioneer CRISPR technology and are involved in the gene-editing field.

5. Give two reasons why researchers think the ban of about five years is needed?

The ban will give scientists time to further test gene-editing tools and to make them safer. It also will allow time for public education and debate about gene-editing experiments. Students might also say that the ban is needed because previous statements on gene-edited babies have not been effective.

6. Identify and define at least two terms in the article that aren’t familiar to you. How does knowing these words help you understand the article?

Germ line refers to the cells, including egg and sperm cells, that organisms use to pass along their genes to the next generation. The scientists calling for the ban are specifying that gene-editing can’t be used on these cells because such changes would be heritable.

Clinical refers to work that is done in a medical clinic and involves a living patient. Scientists are arguing that gene editing of heritable traits shouldn’t be done in people until the technology is more mature.

7. How does this call for a ban compare with previous statements from scientists on gene editing?

This proposal is very similar to previous statements but uses the stronger language of the word “moratorium,” or ban.

8. If the ban doesn’t have legal weight, why might scientists follow it?

Scientists may be reluctant to do something that their peers, or government, have agreed is wrong. A scientist who wants to go against the ban might face criticism or have difficulty getting support from colleagues.

9. What did Chinese scientist Jiankui He do last year? How does bioengineer Russ Altman think He’s actions will affect this ban?

Jiankui He edited embryos that resulted in the birth of two babies. Altman thinks the breach might make people pay more attention and be more likely to follow the moratorium.

10. What questions do you have after reading this article?

How many and which countries have adopted this ban? Did scientist Jiankui He face any consequences because of his work? Are the gene-edited babies that were born last year healthy? What future benchmarks in CRISPR research will indicate when the technology is safe enough to create gene-edited babies?