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Video Review: What is genome editing and how does it work?

19 June 2017
Appeared in BioNews 905

Genome editing is currently a hot topic. This is partly because of its promise in potentially treating genetic diseases and improving farmed crops; but also because it raises many ethical debates regarding safety and moral responses to this advancement. Though genetics may not be a priority for many people, understanding the advantages and disadvantages of where science can lead us, and how it can affect us, is important.

The Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society have teamed up to produce an educational video exploring both the science and ethics behind genome editing, with aid of an animation. A narrator discusses what genome editing is, its advantages and disadvantages, and gives clear examples of where it has or could be used.

Overall, I think that the video was effective in delivering the current issues, and explaining the basic premise with little scientific jargon so it can be easily understood by the majority. However, I am unclear of exactly who the video is directed at, and what the Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society are aiming to achieve from it. Part of the issue for me is the ambiguity at the end, as the audience is given no direction on how to learn more, and no pointers on how they can have an input into the wider public debate on genome editing.

I tried to look up the topic to find other Wellcome or Royal Society articles and videos, and was only able to find one that linked to the video; this was an explainer by Hannah Isom and Kate Arkless Gray that followed a question and answer format. It was published a year before the video and answers many queries in an easily understandable way, being more explanatory of the science behind CRISPR/Cas9 than the video.

In recent years, videos have been a more efficient source of communications than articles, to a broader audience; meaning that YouTube is the perfect platform. However, the video received few views (nearly 16,000 since its release in October 2016) in comparison to similar videos such as Genetic engineering will change everything forever – CRISPR by the channel Kurzgesagt – in a nutshell, which received over 6 million views since August 2016. This poses the question of how Wellcome and the Royal Society can better publicise their content so that it is more easily viewed by unconventional audiences, who are unlikely to go on their websites. Likewise, they should include more links to their YouTube channels and videos, so that their conventional audiences have easy access.

As well as more views, the video by Kurzgesagt – in a nutshell also poses and answers more questions regarding the future of genetic modifications, and our past of scientific discovery; claiming that 'Science fiction became our reality, and we don’t even think about it'. The run time for this video is 16 minutes three seconds, so there is more time for communicating information and addressing the issues, which drew me to it.

However, the Wellcome Trust and Royal Society video is efficient at explaining the advantages and disadvantages, as well as the method, in a quick and simple four minute 22 second format; better for people with a shorter attention span, or those simply pushed for time.

Crucially, the video is concise in delivering the importance of a global conversation about genome editing, as the topic should be discussed across an audience wider than that of the science community. This will help ensure that future decisions can be made with wider input than just scientists, and take into account the cultural and ethical beliefs of humanity.

The video cites the case of a baby girl being cured of leukemia in 2015 using genome editing – this example conveys the procedure as valuable, because it appeals to the caring nature of parents to protect their young. It presents the question of: 'Who wouldn’t prevent these diseases, if it was possible?'

The application of genome editing to foods and crops is also interesting, because it creates awareness of modifications already present in agriculture, without us even noticing.

Yet I do think the video could include more information about the advantages of CRISPR/Cas9 in comparison to older techniques, because audiences may believe that this is the standard method that has been used for decades; when in reality, it is very new.

As a student at sixth form in the UK, I conclude that the team who produced it have made an informative video, which is clear from the perspective of a non-scientist. It is educational and entertaining, as well as raising personal and moral questions around the field of genetics; therefore, I would recommend that those who are interested in science and the future of our world should watch it.

What is gene editing and how does it work?
The Wellcome Trust and The Royal Society |  4 October 2016
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