Tim Lewens, University of Cambridge

Tim Lewens, University of Cambridge

Thursday, 7 February 2019 at 15:00 in the Large Operon, EMBL Heidelberg

Tim Lewens, University of Cambridge

Blurring the germline - From genome editing to transgenerational epigenetic inheritance


Until now, bioethical discussion of germline interventions has focused more or less exclusively on changes to the genome. But sperm, eggs and embryos are made up of more than genes, and there are indications that changes to non-genetic structures in these elements of the germline can also be inherited. It is, therefore, a mistake to treat phrases like "germline inheritance" and "genetic inheritance" as simple synonyms.

Moreover, additional research on non-genetic inheritance draws attention to a wide variety of means whereby adults can transmit traits to their offspring that bypass the germline altogether. How, then, should bioethical discussion be updated to take account of these forms of non-genetic inheritance?

I argue that research on various forms of non-DNA-sequence-based inheritance undermines the notion that there is some special form of ethical concern that falls on germline interventions in general, and on interventions to the nuclear genome within the germline in particular.


Tim Lewens is Professor of Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. His research focuses on bioethics, the philosophy of biology and general issues in the philosophy of science. His recent publications include Why We Disagree About Human Nature (edited with Elizabeth Hannon, OUP 2018), The Meaning of Science (Penguin, 2015), Cultural Evolution: Conceptual Challenges (OUP 2015) and The Biological Foundations of Bioethics (OUP 2015). He is a former member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.