Rewriting the Code of Life: The science and ethics behind genome editing


Rewriting the Code of Life: The science and ethics behind genome editing

Wednesday 1 June 2016

At this year's EMBL-EBI Science and Society event at the Cambridge Union, we explore the rise of genome editing technologies with an evening of talks and lively discussion, led by experts in the field Andrew Hessel, Sarah Chan and Dirk Heckl. We'll introduce the science behind genome editing, explore potential applications and exchange ideas about the social and ethical implications of these technologies.

The emergence of genome editing as a viable way to tackle disease in humans, animals and plants has hit the headlines. Recent applications have certainly been eye-catching: a child cured of leukaemia, mosquitoes resistant to malaria parasites and other stories have people thinking about how this technology might change the way we live. What new applications are in the pipeline - cures for HIV, improving IVF and fertility treatments, or even protecting crops? Will it be possible to transcend nature by ‘enhancing’ the genomes of humans and other species?

Technologies for cloning, shuffling, transferring, and recombining genes have been around for decades, but now that the technologies have matured, we are finally in a position to start editing genomes in a very precise way. The real game changer has been the 2013 discovery of the CRISPR/Cas9 technique, which allows for cheaper, more accurate and easier editing of genomes. While it has promise for transforming our lives, there is a clear and immediate need to work through the ethical and social implications of its use.

How do we balance the benefits to the health of humans, crops and the environment against the potential risks? And what if these new technologies pushed us gradually onto a slippery slope towards greater social inequality? At Rewriting the Code of Life: The science and ethics behind genome editing, we will explore these and many other questions.

Attendance is free and open to all. Please join us.


This event is free to attend and you can drop-in on the night, so we recommend that you arrive early to avoid disappointment. However, we haven't had to turn anyone away so far! Doors open at 6pm. 


Chair: Katrina Costa

Time Title Speaker
6:15 PM Welcome and introduction Halldór Stefánsson, Science & Society Programme Manager, EMBL-EBI
6:20 PM CRISPR-Cas9: a game changer in genome editing Dirk Heckl, Assistant Professor, Department of Pediatric Hematology and
Oncology, Hannover Medical School
6:50 PM Genome Editing: What is it good for?
Andrew Hessel, Distinguished Researcher Autodesk and
Co-founder, Pink Army Cooperative biotechnology company
7:20 PM Letters to the (Gene) Editor: Ethical issues in genome editing technology Sarah Chan, Chancellor’s Fellow at the Usher Institute for Population Health
Sciences and Informatics, University of Edinburgh
8:00 PM Q&A with the panel  
8:45 PM Refreshments: wine, beer, soft drinks and nibbles  


Dirk Heckl

Dirk Heckl: CRISPR-Cas9: a game changer in genome editing

The CRISPR-Cas9 system for gene editing has only recently emerged, but it has already fuelled hopes to be a transformative technology for biological and medical applications. Consisting of a single protein (Cas9) that is guided to a targeted stretch of DNA, the system is versatile and cost efficient. It has spread with tremendous speed throughout all fields of research. Genetic modification of crops, improvements in drug development, and curative gene therapies are just a few examples of scientific accomplishments that may enter the commercial market within the next few years. Whilst this fascination with genome editing and rapid advance of the field may help to solve endemic diseases and nutrition shortages, ethical debates and legal issues are lagging behind.


Dirk Heckl was born in Northern Germany and received a Bachelor in Plant Biotechnology from the Leibnitz- University in Hannover. He obtained his Masters in Biomedicine and his PhD in Molecular Medicnine in 2011 at Hannover Medical School. He was a postdoc at Institute of Experimental Hematology and the Department of Pediatric Hematology and Oncology, Hannover Medical School and the Brigham & Women's Hospital at Harvard Medical School, Boston, USA.

Since September 2015 Dirk has been Junior Research Group Leader at the Department of Pediatric Hematology and Oncology, Hannover Medical School. Dirk’s research projects are focused on the use of CRISPR-Cas9 based genome editing to decipher oncogenic cooperation in the pathogenesis of acute myeloid leukemia (AML).

Andrew Hessel

Andrew Hessel: Genome Editing: What is it good for?

Genome editing technology has been around for decades, but the emergence of the CRISPR/Cas9 system has reduced the technical barriers and costs. This is fueling a wave of research and development in basic science, diagnostics, and therapeutics that range from sequence-targeted antibiotics to genetic 'surgery' of HIV-infected cells. With funding and investment flooding into the field, more breakthrough discoveries and innovations are likely to follow in the coming years. But editing the physical DNA molecule with enzymatic systems like CRISPR is challenging in comparison to editing DNA code with software tools followed by synthesizing DNA from scratch. This is already the preferred form of genome editing for smaller DNA constructs such as plasmids and viruses. It is likely, then, that the utility of CRISPR will taper off as DNA design and synthesis technology improves.


Andrew Hessel is a futurist and catalyst in biological technologies, helping industry, academics, and authorities better understand the changes happening in life science. He is a Distinguished Researcher with Autodesk in their Bio/Nano Research Group, based out of San Francisco. He is also the co-founder of the Pink Army Cooperative, the world’s first cooperative biotechnology company, which is aiming to make open source viral therapies for cancer.
Sarah Chan

Sarah Chan: Letters to the (Gene) Editor: Ethical issues in genome editing technology

Genome editing holds great promise for biological science, as well as for health and other applications. Yet many have raised questions about the use of these technologies, ranging from the risks it might pose both to human health and the environment, to the possible consequences of a genetically-engineered society. Of particular concern is the potential use of gene editing for reproductive purposes and the prospect of human germline genetic modification, prompting fears over ‘designer babies’ and genetic enhancement, as well as questions about our right to make choices that will affect the genome of future generations. These issues, and others, are important ones that we will have to address, as we make decisions about how we might use gene editing today to shape the world in the future.


Sarah Chan is a Chancellor’s Fellow at the Usher Institute for Population Health Sciences and Informatics, and Deputy Director of the Mason Institute for Medicine, Life Sciences and Law, University of Edinburgh.  She graduated from the University of Melbourne with the degrees of LLB and BSc(Hons) and spent some years working in a molecular biology laboratory before moving into the area of science policy and bioethics. She received an MA in Health Care Ethics and Law and a PhD in Bioethics from the University of Manchester, where she was a Research Fellow in Bioethics from 2005 to 2015, first at the Centre for Social Ethics and Policy and from 2008 the Institute for Science Ethics and Innovation, where she was Deputy Director. Sarah joined the University of Edinburgh in August 2015. Her research interests and publications cover areas including the ethics of stem cell and embryo research and reproductive medicine, gene therapy and genetic modification, human enhancement, animal ethics and research ethics. 

The Cambridge Union Society
9A Bridge Street Cambridge CB2 1UB United Kingdom

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This event is free to attend, so we recommend that you arrive early to avoid disappointment. Doors open at 6pm. If you would like to receive reminder emails, please register your interest.

About the EMBL Science and Society Programme

Rewriting the Code of Life: The science and ethics behind genome editing is a Science and Society event organised by the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI). The event is part of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory’s Science and Society programme, an initiative established in 1998 to promote the social and cultural relevance of the life sciences.


This EMBL-EBI Science and Society evening will take place at The Cambridge Union Society

The Cambridge Union
9a Bridge Street

The nearest public car park is Park Street (postcode CB5 8AS) and there are bicycle racks outside.

Event organiser