What does the public really think of genome editing technology? The results are mixed...
To conduct the poll, researchers recruited 12,562 people from 185 countries through social media (Facebook, Twitter, Google, and WeChat) and investigated their opinion on the use of genome editing technology for the treatment of disease and for non-health related traits like intelligence, strength, and physical appearance.
Most of the participants came from the USA or UK (29%) followed by China and Japan (22%). As expected by the use of social media to recruit participants, the median age was very low (24 years). Males were more represented than females (only 37.9% females).
Overall 59% of respondents supported the use of genome editing for curing life-threatening diseases in adults and children. Only 9.6% of respondents disagreed with this use. The use of genome editing to cure debilitating diseases received equal strong support by the survey participants (59.4% agreed). Interestingly, participants equally accepted embryonic editing as editing in children or adults.
Support was lower for non-health related traits. Only 26.8% of respondents supported the use of genome editing to alter non-health related traits and 43.3% opposed this application. Of those who supported the application of genome editing for non-health related traits the use of genome editing to increase intelligence received the highest support (68%). Enhancing strength or sporting ability received support by 58.4% and physical appearance by 51.3%.
Younger people and males tended to be more in favor for genome editing. With every decade of added life the rejection of genome editing increased by 9.3% for non-health related traits and with 33.9% for GM food. Religious affiliation also decreased acceptance of genome editing. People who reported being Christians were most likely to reject any application of genome editing. Compared to those with no religious affiliation, Muslims had a greater rejection of the use of genome editing for non-health related applications and GM food. There was a strong correlation between a greater level of education and higher acceptance of genome editing. Strangely enough being affected by or having a family history of monogenic or Mendelian disease was not associated with greater acceptance of genome editing.
The study has some limitations. Firstly, the recruitment of people through social media has skewed the participants to younger ages and those with internet connection. Secondly, while the questions were translated, this in itself could have introduced a bias. Finally, the poll did not investigate people’s understanding of genome editing. For example, in another recent poll that investigated people’s opinion on GM foods, 80% of respondents supported mandatory labeling of foods containing DNA. 33% of respondents answered that non-GM tomatoes do not contain genes and 32% thought that vegetables did not have DNA. Hence a significant proportion of respondents were unaware of the fact that all living things (plants, animals, mushrooms, seaweeds,...) contain DNA.
McCaughey T, Sanfilippo PG, Gooden GEC, Budden DM, Fan L, Fenwick E, Rees G, MacGregor C, Si L, Chen C, Liang HH, Baldwin T, Pébay A, Hewitt AW (2016). A global social media survey of attitudes to human genome editing. Cell Stem Cell 18: 569-571.
McFadden BR, Lusk JL (2016). What consumers don’t know about genetically modified food, and how that affects beliefs. The FASEB J [Epub ahead of print].