The ethics of trans-kingdom gene transfer

Is it ethically appropriate to transfer genes from one person to another? Or from one species to another? From humans to animals? From a vegetable to a fish? Does it make any difference how closely related the species are? In the natural world there is a limitation of the transfer of genes – which occurs through sexual reproduction -  to those species which can breed, but in the artificial world of genetic engineering there is no such limitation. Genes from very different species and kingdoms can be mixed.  The Ethics of Trans-kingdom Gene Transfer, produced by the Working Group of the Gene Technology Ethics Committee  (Commonwealth of Australia: Office of the Gene Technology Regulator) is an attempt to with myself as convenor is one attempt to define the ethical issues involved and to set guidelines for genetic enginerring processes.

The statement can be found at the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator or downloaded here: Trans-kingdom Gene Transfer

Some extracts from the report appear below:

The problem of definitions

The general public is concerned about genes crossing the natural boundaries between species. This concern depends on where the public perceives these natural boundaries to lie; however, its validity does not depend on whether the public’s perceptions of species boundaries conform to scientific ones or not.

The general public’s use of the term ‘kingdom’ may differ from the scientific use. For example, people may classify poriferans (sponges), pigs and people as belonging to different kingdoms, but scientifically they all belong to the same kingdom, Animalia. The poriferan belongs to the phylum Porifera, whereas pigs and people belong to the phylum Chordata. However, pigs and people belong in the same class (Mammalia) but are placed in different orders (Cetartiodactyla and Primates, respectively).

Therefore, what the general public considers to be gene transfer between two different kingdoms may actually be gene transfer within the same kingdom. Scientifically speaking, inserting a pig gene into a human would be a trans-order gene transfer, whereas inserting a gene from a chimpanzee into a human would be a trans-genus gene transfer, because chimps and humans belong to the same family but different genera. Nonspecialist terms may mix different levels of classificatory resolution. Therefore, based on the general public’s understandings of taxonomic groups, gene transfer may occur between species or between various combinations of taxa groups; however, the ethical issues exist in both situations.


Key point

The general public’s concerns for trans-species gene transfer may not always align with the taxonomic levels of separation between species. This may not be justifiable in scientific terms, but can be understood in terms of the cultural and religious values that people may attribute to different living things.

The Framework in Outline

In developing the National Framework, GTEC identified the following values and principles as the most relevant for ethics of gene technology. They are presented here only in summary form. For further detail reference should be made to the National Framework document.

The following values are important because they are part of a common currency in discussions about the ethics of gene technology.

  • Respect for human life
  • Respect for animals
  • Respect for the environment
  • Freedom of choice
  • Acquiring and applying knowledge
  • Reasoned argument and decision making
  • Trust

GTEC has developed the following nine principles that should guide researchers and all others involved with gene technology. They help to ensure that the values identified above shape policies and actions that arise when dealing with gene technology, GMOs and GM products.

Researchers and all others involved in gene technology should:

  • treat integrity as the guiding value in the search for and application of knowledge and benefits and in regard to the obligations of, and intentions underlying, the national regulatory system and other relevant guidelines and regulations (Principle 1)
  • take responsibility for ensuring that activities within their control do not cause damage to the Australian environment or to areas beyond the limits of the national jurisdiction; to achieve this, there must be a thorough assessment of the long-term side effects of applications of gene technology (Principle 2)
  • minimise risks of harm or discomfort to humans and animals likely to be adversely affected by gene technology (Principle 3)
  • assess and respect the environmental and health needs of present and future generations (Principle 4)
  • conduct research in a manner that protects the environment,  including protection of genetic diversity, organisms, species, natural ecosystems, and natural and physical resources (Principle 5)
  • act justly towards others, and demonstrate respect for human beings (as individuals and group members) in all activities associated with gene technology, including obtaining proper consent (Principle 6)
  • promote equitable access to scientific developments and sharing knowledge, and recognise the value of benefit sharing (Principle 7)
  • conduct research in a manner that promotes the benevolent and avoids the malevolent uses of gene technology (Principle 8)
  • conduct gene technology research after appropriate consultation and ensuring transparency and public scrutiny of the processes (Principle 9)

These values and principles provide a background against which the ethical issues related specifically to trans-species gene transfer can be assessed.

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