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Most Americans approve of genetic engineering that benefits human health, but not other uses

A mosquito
flickr user trebol-a
Mosquito picando

Many Americans are ok with genetic engineering of animals if it benefits human health. But a lot of people oppose other uses of the technology. Those are the findings of a new Pew Research Center survey.

In the survey, researchers gave people five different scenarios of genetic engineering: things are already happening or in the works – or could realistically happen in the future. They asked people in each case – is this an appropriate use of technology or taking technology too far?

Cary Funk is the director of science and society research at the Pew Research Center.

“What’s interesting here is we really tried to have a wide range of uses of genetic engineering in animals. You don’t see uniform responses – public opinion really depends on the mechanism and purpose of the genetic engineering," she says. "It was really striking to see that there’s widespread public acceptance of the idea of genetically engineering mosquitoes in order to reduce the number of mosquito-borne diseases.”

70% of respondents said they thought genetically engineering mosquitoes to prevent their reproduction, and in turn, slow the spread of disease, would be appropriate.

“We also see a majority of Americans saying they would support the idea of using genetic engineering to grow human organs," says Funk. "By contrast, [for the] other uses we saw really a majority on the side of saying this would be taking technology too far. So one of the things we took away from this is that public acceptance of genetic engineering in animals really was aimed at uses that would benefit human health."

The three other uses they asked about were: genetically engineering animals to increase protein production leading to more nutritious meat, engineering a closely related species to bring back an extinct animal, and engineering aquarium fish to cause them to glow.

"What really is striking from that is people give a fairly nuanced concern about the potential impact of these technologies on animals, on humans and on the broader ecosystem," says Funk.

For example, they asked people to explain why they are opposed to the idea of using closely related species to bring back an extinct animal.

“There were lots of people who objected to this idea, in fact, the majority thought it would be taking technology too far. Among that group, many talked about the idea that these species would be extinct for a reason, and the ecosystem they’d be coming back into would be one that allowed them to die out originally and therefore would be less supportive of them surviving," she says.

She says there were a number of people who thought this would be interfering with nature in a way that we really shouldn’t be doing.

You can read more details about the survey here.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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