It’s been 10 years since CRISPR gene editing technology first made its debut. Years later, the groundbreaking technology gained major traction in the public eye, sparked largely by a Chinese biophysicist who used it in an attempt to modify human embryos to resist HIV (much to the disapproval of the global scientific community).

It’s still early days for CRISPR, but research has been rapidly developing over the past decade (into a multi-billion dollar biotech industry) with big potential to be used in treating genetic disease and medicine – for example, human trials are underway looking at how it can be used to treat something as common as high cholesterol. And researchers are exploring its capabilities across the board, in everything from reviving the DNA of extinct animal species, to crop engineering, and beyond.

What does public reception of CRISPR look like today? Do people feel positive or negative about how it’s being used, or could be used, such as treating disease versus modifying human embryos to create “designer babies”? CivicScience conducted a series of surveys to gauge American attitudes about CRISPR.

CRISPR Awareness and Public Reception

A survey of more than 2,900 U.S. adults finds that familiarity with CRISPR gene editing technology is split evenly down the middle of the Gen Pop. Half of survey respondents say they are familiar with CRISPR and half are not. And when it comes to sentiment about CRISPR? Just 1-in-5 U.S. adults feels at all positive about CRISPR technology (21%). However, that outranks those who feel negatively about it (15%).

When rebased by those familiar with CRISPR and broken out into greater detail, results show that people are most inclined to answer they feel either ‘neutral’ (28%) or ‘somewhat positive’ (23%) about CRISPR. Nearly equal percentages exist on the extreme ends – 19% are ‘very positive’ and 20% are ‘very negative’ on the technology. 

Ultimately, survey results show that, altogether, more Americans familiar with CRISPR feel positive about the technology (42%) than they feel negative (31%) about it.

Reception of Different CRISPR Applications

Going one step deeper, data reveal that public opinion varies drastically on CRISPR uses. When asked to rate the ethicality of different categories, an overwhelming majority (72%) of people who are aware of CRISPR think that using CRISPR to treat diseases and medical conditions is at least a ‘somewhat ethical’ use of the technology. 

However, the tables turn when the notion of using CRISPR to edit human embryos is brought into the mix. More than two-thirds (68%) of the CRISPR-aware believe that one day allowing parents to “customize” a child’s genetic makeup – touching on the concept of “designer babies” – is a highly unethical use of CRISPR.

These results are in line with a CivicScience survey conducted in late 2018, which found the American public was largely averse to using CRISPR to edit the DNA of human embryos. However, a much higher percentage from that survey (43%) felt that modifying embryos specifically to prevent disease was acceptable, but few felt that modifying other genetic traits – such as eye color, hair color, height, gender, or IQ – was acceptable.

All-in-all, current results suggest that the public still considers it taboo to use CRISPR technology to genetically alter human embryos. They are also not very keen on using it to modify animal genomes, such as one research startup’s goal to revive the DNA of the woolly mammoth. More than half (58%) feel that altering the genetic makeup of animals is an unethical use of CRISPR.

A ‘CRISPR-Forward’ Future?

If the public has any influence or sway on where CRISPR is headed, and how accepted it will become in medicine in particular, then the future may look promising for the biotechnology according to current data. Young adults are one, much more aware of CRISPR; and two, far more accepting of it. Around three-quarters of Gen Z adults (18-24) and two-thirds of Millennials (25-34) are familiar with CRISPR, whereas just around one-third of Baby Boomers (55+) are aware of the technology.

Among the CRISPR-aware, close to half of the under-35 age groups feel positive about the technology. Around 20% or less feel negative about it – negative sentiment nearly doubles for Gen X and Baby Boomer cohorts. In fact, Gen X respondents have the most negative outlook on CRISPR out of all age groups.

Young adults are also much more accepting about the possibility of using CRISPR to alter the genomes of human embryos and animal species. The majority of those under 35 feel that doing so is considered at least somewhat ethical. That stands in stark contrast to the opinions of older generations.

Not to jump too far ahead, CRISPR technology is still being proven out in terms of efficacy and safety, but current results suggest that public opinion as it stands now skews more positive than negative among the American population who are familiar with the technology. As shown, views on how ethical CRISPR is vary significantly depending on how it’s applied. And not to be overlooked is the distinct generational divide surrounding acceptance of CRISPR, which could impact how the technology is developed and used in the future. 

Much more remains to be explored when it comes to CRISPR, such as how the COVID-19 pandemic may have affected opinion/sentiment about the technology. Check back for additional updates.