Scientists have been given a green light from members of the public to press ahead with developing gene editing therapies for life-threatening conditions.
People are also broadly in favour of using the powerful technology to stamp out inherited diseases, according to the results of a Royal Society survey.
Like most scientists working in the field, the majority are opposed to “designer baby” genetic engineering to enhance intelligence or select characteristics such as hair or eye colour.
However the poll of 2,061 respondents found that 30%-40%, a surprisingly large proportion, did not think gene-tweaking to improve appearance or abilities would be wrong.
The “public dialogue” exercise aimed at gauging public opinion about fast-moving genetic technologies consisted of a series of six workshops and a national online survey.
It follows huge strides taken by scientists using Crispr/Cas9 “cut and paste” technology, that allows precise changes to be made in DNA.
Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, from the Francis Crick Institute in London – who chairs the Royal Society’s genetic technologies programme, said: “Developments in genetic science are driven by our wish to tackle the many challenges humanity faces, including reducing the burden of human disease.
“People have told us that they are cautiously optimistic about the potential of the new methods for research and applications, but they are understandably concerned about the risks, and the ethical and social implications.
“With developments in science making genetic technologies faster, easier to use and more affordable, now is the time to discuss how we use these new genetic tools, if we should use them and where we want them to take us.
“Working out what we as a society find ethically acceptable requires open and inclusive debate involving many voices – and any decisions as to their use should not be left to scientists and clinicians alone, but involve all sectors of society.”
Of the survey participants, 83% believed using gene editing to conquer incurable devastating disorders such as muscular dystrophy would be positive for society.
Almost the same proportion, 82%, had no qualms about the technology being brought to bear on conditions such as leukaemia for which other treatments are already available. Nearly three quarters (73%) were happy for gene editing to be used to treat arthritis and other non-life threatening conditions.
A total of 69% drew the line at cosmetic gene alterations affecting appearance, while 60% felt the same about editing higher intelligence or other abilities such as athletic prowess into people’s DNA.
Just over half the participants were positive about the use of genetic technologies to increase food production, for instance by creating easy-to-grow salmon.
More than 70% approved of the idea of using genetically modified mosquitoes to curb the spread of malaria.
In contrast, 72% were opposed to the creation of micro-pigs or fluorescent fish and other cosmetic applications involving animals.
Gene editing of plants to produce cheaper medicines won the support of 69% of respondents, while 70% – 77% backed the genetic modification of food crops to make them more nutritious or resistant to disease.
Only 23% thought it was permissible for gene editing to be used to produce fruit and vegetables that looked more tempting on supermarket shelves.
People were strongly in favour of international co-operation to govern genetic technology, with 81% supporting a global regulatory framework.