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The field of genetic engineering has developed rapidly over the past decades and revived the age-old conflict about progress as a blessing or a curse. Does genetic engineering present an opportunity to develop better medications, to improve crop yields, and to increase economic growth? Or does it present an incalculable risk to our health, the environment, and social cohesion? Genetic engineering in particular seems to unsettle people more than other technological innovations.

In light of these issues, the Gene Tenology Report is acting as an impartial, long-term 'observatory' to provide careful appraisal of the various applications of genetic engineering and to closely monitor its development in Germany. The latest technical developments are being studied, alongside the diverse areas where genetic engineering is employed. The economic, ecological and scientific aspects of specific applications of these technologies are being appraised by the research group, as well as ethical, political, and social factors.

Our focus at present is on the following applications of genetic engineering in Germany:

GM plants and GM food

No other aspect of genetic engineering is so controversial in Germany - or in the rest of Europe - as the cultivation and use of genetically modified plants. Nevertheless, genetic engineering for agriculture is continuing to develop globally at breathtaking speed and breeders are already working on second and third generation genetically modified plants. Among these are plants for healthier nutrition (functional food), for medical use (Plant-Made Pharmaceuticals), or those used in the chemicals industry (Plant-Made Industrial Products). The research group reviews the current state of technological development of genetic engineering for agriculture technology and its applications. The debate on the associated risks in their legal, social, political, economic, ecological and ethical aspects is focused, too.

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Cloning and stem cells

Over the past 25 years, significant findings have been made in the field of cell biology and developmental biology. 'Dolly', the famous cloned sheep, is just one milestone among many others. Due to the great potential that stem cell research has for future strategies in regenerative medicine, great efforts are required in terms of scientific, financial and organisational considerations. The success of these efforts will depend on the general socio-political conditions and the underlying legal framework. An important factor will be the realization of a responsible discussion of ethical principles and the engagement of informed professionals in order to communicate and establish new technologies in the public realm. The research group's objective remains to process the state of knowledge and technology as well as describing individual fields of application such as basic and applied research, stem cell therapies, or focussing on the ethical implications and legal framework of research using human embryos.

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Genetic testing

For example, genetic testing allows us to determine the genetic dispositions to diseases a long time before the potential or actual outbreak. Here a distinction must be drawn between genetic testing to diagnose a specific disease and genetic testing to prognosticate a genetic risk. Genetic testing is currently the most important application of genetic engineering in medicine. This has two main reasons: Firstly, there are very few diseases in which the genes are not involved as a cause. Secondly, genetic testing is developing at breathtaking speed. At the same time, the unforeseeable diagnostic possibilities are causing many people concern, as the debate on prenatal diagnosis has shown. The research group documents the scientific and technical development of genetic testing and its possible applications including its legal implications. Additional points include: the forensic applications of molecular genetics, preimplantation genetic diagnosis, the health-economical aspects and the possibility of preventive coercion.

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Gene therapy

Gene therapy is another important field of genetic engineering, where genes are introduced into a patient’s cells for therapeutic measures or vaccination. The introduction of the foreign DNA material is termed gene transfer and utilizes specialized gene carriers termed vectors. The development of gene therapy vectors is currently a main focus of research. As for the indications of gene therapy, clinical studies target foremost oncological illnesses, followed by cardiovascular, monogenic and infectious diseases. Gene therapy can aim to modify somatic cells or germ cells. Somatic cells are all cells of the human body which are not germ cells. Their DNA content is not passed on to the next generation. By contrast the term germ cell refers only to the egg and sperm cells. Any change in the DNA content of these cells would be passed onto to the next generation. Germ line gene therapy is prohibited by law in Germany. The research group examines procedures and methods of gene therapy in both fundamental and applied research including judicial, economical, ethical and social aspects as well as the public perception and opinion in Germany.  

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Synthetic biology

This young research field has gained considerable publicity since the press release by Craig Venter in May 2010 announcing the successful engineering of the first functional bacterial cell with a synthetic genome. The recent scientific advances have fuelled visions of artificial life created willfully in laboratories and profitable, custom-tailored microbes which will produce biofuels, pharmaceuticals, and commodities such as food and chemicals in the future. The research group is currently taking a closer look at the promises of synthetic biology. It will review the many definitions of this discipline and show the current developments in research and technology in Germany. Future applications as well as the current public perception in Germany will be discussed. Another strong focus of the group will be the ethical and theological aspects of man-made life forms and their impact on our understanding of the natural and the artificial.

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The last decades have delivered an astounding amount of information about the structure and role of the DNA and the genes encoded within. However, the functioning of our genetic material has turned out to be highly complex. It has become apparent that distinct modifications of the DNA molecule itself influence the activity of genes greatly while the unique sequence of the affected genes remains unaltered. Thus two cells with precisely the same DNA sequence can display different physiological traits. Such patterns are necessary for normal developmental processes, but are also associated with diseases such as cancer. Epigenetic changes to the DNA are shaped by environmental factors and can also be passed on to future generations. Over the next years, the research group will examine the issue of epigenetic research in Germany:  The group is going to monitor future developments in this field under consideration of ethical and social dimensions.

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Genome surgery

New, precise genetic engineering methods for genome alteration in living cells, which can be classed together under the generic heading “genome surgery”, are currently sparking a revolution in biomedical research. The Interdisciplinary Research Group Gene Technology Report is, in principle, in favour of research on these promising new methods for the medical sector. However, for the time being, it has clearly spoken out against gene surgery experiments on the human germ line, which could also enter the realm of possibility thanks to these methods. The research group, therefore, supports the call, which has already been discussed at length in scientific and public circles, for a moratorium for germ line experiments. The period of the moratorium should be used to debate the experimental, ethical and legal aspects of germ line therapy in an open, transparent and critical manner with a view to more clearly defining the opportunities and risks of these technologies for man and nature, and to elaborating recommendations for future regulations.

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Genetic engineering in farm animals

Transgenic farm animals have been first developed in the 1980s. Practical applications have been few in number in the early years, but genetic engineering of livestock has become more refined and increasingly feasible over the decades. The first product from genetically engineered farm animals to hit the European market in 2006 was antithrombin: a protein regulating blood coagulation harvested from the milk of transgenic goats. Current research focuses on a higher yield or improved quality of animal products such as milk or wool. Disease resistance and reduction of environmental impact are typical applications as well as pharmaceuticals like the aforementioned antithrombin. Genetic engineering is also hoped to increase the compatibility of animals as organ donors for humans. However, the multitude of these positive and also profitable possibilities of transgenic farm animals has to be carefully weighed against concerns regarding safety, ethics and animal welfare. Against this background an interdisciplinary symposium was organized in 2007 in a joined effort of the Europäische Akademie and the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften.

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