Biological, ecological and economic implications of gene editing in animal production

Highlights 2020

The project's contribution to the Centre for Digital Life Norway annual report 2020.

EcoGene is a crossdisciplinary project examining both the biological and socioeconomic consequences of using new gene editing technology, e.g. CRISPR.

During the past year we have focused, in the socioeconomic part of the project, on understanding the context of innovation processes in biotechnology, specifically technological developments and their regulation, both globally and in Norway. This involves mapping the specifics of genetic engineering and studying the relevant regulatory status. For example, we have investigated the process of getting the first US-approved GM fish for human consumption – AquaAdvantage salmon. We have analysed the interaction with various stakeholders, or more precisely the lack of interaction, during the AquaBounty innovation process. The current research is now focused on defining and interacting with the main stakeholders about sustainable research and innovation in biotechnology in the Norwegian context.

In the biological part of EcoGene project, we are still working on establishing the experimental population of the aquaculture species Nile tilapia, which is not so well known in Norway, but is one of the main international aquaculture species. Once the population is well established, it will be used to investigate the results of specific CRISPR modifications: both off-target effects and unintentional influences on other traits.

An exciting and exceptional experience in 2020 was the shooting of a video about the EcoGene project for Digital Life Norway that gave us an opportunity to look at our project from an external perspective.

For us, the added value of being a part of a transdisciplinary centre is being part of a larger network of researchers addressing similar problems from different angles, empathising with researchers and understanding the intricacies of the research process, getting access to diverse activities facilitated by DLN.

Micro injection of tilapia eggs. Photo: H.M. Gjøen

Video made for Digital Life 2020 – the annual conference of the Centre for Digital Life Norway – and edited for the Nobel week as featured in news article about the Nobel week and CRISPR in the centre.


Project overview

Project lead: Hans Magnus Gjøen and Bernt Aarset
Institution: NMBU – Faculty of Bioscience
Partners: NMBU – School of Economics and Business, NMBU – Faculty of Biosciences. Project members at NBMU: Darshan A. Young, PhD candidate, Biosciences / Olga Mikhailova, Post Doc, School of Economics and Business /Guro Katrine Sandvik, Associate Professor, Bioscience
Funding: The Research Council of Norway, and some internal funding
Duration: 01.08.2019–31.12.2022

Research group

Interest in using the new gene editing tool CRISPR to improve our food stocks has been growing over the past decade. While scientists explore new technologies to address problems of animal health and welfare, there is still room for caution. In the Digital Life Norway project EcoGene at NMBU experts from fields as diverse as genetic biology, the social sciences, and economics, is taking a critical look at this technology.

In order to ensure that CRISPR lives up to its potential, the researchers in EcoGene are taking the time to get a whole picture understanding of not only the biological efficacy of gene editing, but its implications on ecology, industry, and society. 

EcoGene’s work exmplifies the transdisciplinary nature of Digital Life Norway projects. On the biological side, they are performing CRISPR experiments on the fish species tilapia, which is a good model for other aquaculture species. The researchers look for the best way to inject the eggs and whether the gene edits have the desired physiological changes or unwanted side effects. The tilapia are also useful models to evaluate long-term effects of gene editing like yield, growth, genetic variance, and whether the modified traits transfer to the next generation. 

On the social sciences side, the researchers at EcoGene are assessing and evaluating the risk of gene-edited livestock. The aquaculture industry is looking to biotech to help develop inexpensive and reliable solutions to challenges like creating mono-sex fish cultures without hormones and preventing disease without overusing antibiotics. EcoGene’s researchers are looking at these overlapping fields to identify possible risk situations emerging from CRISPR and take precautionary approaches, according to the principles of responsible research and innovation (RRI). They have partnered with breeding companies like GenoMar and Norsvin to get input from stakeholders and engage them in a transparent and interactive process of governing emerging science and innovation. The researchers expect that this project will produce more operational guidelines on how to implement RRI. 

To accomplish this massive task, EcoGene is collaborating with the Centre for Digital Life Norway to facilitate broad conversations. The researchers are already part of one of the EU’s largest quantitative and molecular genetics research group, Cigene, and are collaborating with other researchers, aquaculture and agriculture industry members, and policymakers. The transdisciplinary cooperation between Faculty of Biosciences and the School of Economics and Business at NMBU provides EcoGene with insight into the societal ramifications of gene editing that go beyond the scientific data.

EcoGene is an excellent example of how working across fields can ensure that scientific research has societal benefits. CRISPR and other gene editing techniques have raised the interest in genetic modification, but it is important to study and plan for potential problems before they arise. EcoGene’s work will address these issues so that society has the tools to effectively balance regulations.


PhD candidate Darshan Anthony Young. Photo: Hans Magnus Gjøen.​​​​

Watch project video

Video made for the Digital Life 2020 conference.