Custom-made genetic material: What do consumers think?

Aromatic and durable tomatoes; wheat that defies heat and drought; gene therapy for inherited diseases; the body's own immune cells that fight cancer: Novel DNA scissors are supposed to fulfil all these promises. But what are the risks? Where are the boundaries? What does society have to consider when embarking on these new methods in biotechnology? Citizens can debate these and many more questions at the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) Consumer Conference on Genome Editing – the specialist term for DNA scissors. Interested parties can register by 28 July 2019 for the conference which starts on 10 August 2019.

"There is no doubt in my mind that the novel methods of genome editing represent a scientific revolution – with far-reaching consequences for everyday life," says BfR President, Professor Dr. med. Dr. Andreas Hensel. "This is why it is very important for the BfR's assessment work to understand how consumers perceive this topic – their suggestions, ideas and criticisms are most welcome.”

The Consumer Conference consists of three parts. On two preparation weekends (10 and 11 August, and 31 August and 1 September), participants will get to know each other and receive an introduction to the scientific, technical and social aspects of genome editing. At the three-day final conference from 28 to 30 September, questions from the group of consumers will first be put to a selected group of experts. Then, a consumer vote will be formulated, which will be presented to representatives from politics, science, business and civil society. Consumers taking part in the Consumer Conference will each be reimbursed for their time with €500.

What is Genome Editing?

Humans have always influenced the genetic blueprint through animal and plant breeding. First by the – very lengthy – selection of desirable properties, and later, in the case of plant breeding, with the help of chemicals that led to rapid and tremendous changes to the genetic make-up. This allowed novel variants of plants to be produced that bear larger fruit, for example. The emergence of genetic engineering in the 1970s then enabled the targeted transfer of genetic material (genes).

Over the past 20 years, several methods have been developed that can be used to specifically alter genetic material (the genome). This is possible with DNA scissors, which sever the DNA molecule at a very specific point. The properties of a gene can then be corrected at these cut points. The best-known DNA scissors are CRISPR/Cas9. It originates from a bacterium. This scientific instrument makes it possible to rewrite genetic material, i.e. to "edit" – hence the term "genome editing".

The BfR Consumer Conference on Genome Editing can be found online at:

About BfR

The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientifically independent institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) in Germany. It advises the Federal Government and Federal Laender on questions of food, chemical and product safety. The BfR conducts its own research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.

This text version is a translation of the original German text which is the only legally binding version.

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