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Rewriting DNAProposal for an additional interdepartmental “Honours” course

Moritz J. Arndt
Vivek Lakshman
Zsofia Horvath


Title: Rewriting DNA

Minimum/maximum number of students  25
Academic year  T.b.a.
Semester  T.b.a.
Period  T.b.a.
Day(s)  T.b.a.
Time  18:00-20:00
Number of meetings  13
Dates  T.b.a.
Location  T.b.a.


Course coordinator 

6 EC


Hosting VU faculty  BETA



  1. Biomedicine:
    • Prof. Dr. Brul, Director of biomedical sciences, University of Amsterdam, Swammerdam institute of the life sciences
    • Prof. Dr. van der Oost, Wageningen University, Department agrotechnologie en Voedingswetenschappen. 
    • Prof. Dr. Macnaghten, Wageningen University, Department Maatschappijwetenschappen
  2. Philosophy:
    • Prof. Dr. Meynen (Associate Professor), Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Faculty of Humanities, Moral and Political Philosophy
    • Prof. Dr. Drerup (Full Professor), Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Faculty of Behavioural and Movement Sciences, Educational Studies
    • Dr. Wieland (Assistant Professor), Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Faculty of Humanities, Moral and Political Philosophy
    • Prof. Dr. Bouter (Full Professor), Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Faculty of Humanities, Research integrity
    • Prof. Dr. Lunshof (Assistant professor), Universiteit van Groningen, Department of Genetics, Philosophy and Medical Ethics
  3. Communication Science:
    • Prof. Dr. van Noort (Programme Group Director), University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam School of Communication Research, Persuasive Communication
    • Dr. Boerman (Assistant Professor), University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam School of Communication Research, Persuasive Communication


Coordination and cohesion of the lectures: How will the various lectures and lecturers be coordinated? How will the cohesion between lecturers be guarded?

The course is generally based on an interdisciplinary structure by being composed of three distinct, however, not independently organised subparts concerning the topic of gene editing. Hence, this tripartite course outline may indeed complicate the smooth and coherent operation other, mostly monodisciplinary courses have to offer. Thus, in order to ensure both coordination as well as coherence between all course elements, we propose the following structure among coordinators:

In an ideal situation, there are two supervisors for the entire course (one with a biomedical background, the other with a background in philosophy). Both coordinators are responsible for the entire course, which implies that both coordinators ensure the optimal operation of the entire course. Furthermore, these coordinators are responsible for the contents within the segments which cover their respective academic background. They must ensure the fundamental compliance with the content proposed under point 15. 

However, as mentioned earlier, as both coordinators ensure the coherence of the entire course together, they must ensure smooth and logical transition between all, but especially their own, segments. This implies organising the attaching end and starts of each segment such that the following is able to tie up to this end of the previous segment. Thus, it is crucial that both coordinators follow the basic outline given under point 15, which can be summarised the following:

  • “What is gene-editing?”, “How does gene-editing work?”, “What does gene-editing already achieve within the technological, global economy?”, “What future potential may this technology hold?”
  • “Should we materialise on such potential?”, “At which point does technological potential become a threat?”, “What are the moral limits/boundaries of such technology?”, “How can we build a framework for the future organisation and potential use of this technology?”
  • “How well informed is society about the potential as well as the moral limits of this technology?”, “How is the current debate on such issue framed?”, How can the government help frame this issue/technology to better inform their citizens and allow harvest of the morally acceptable potential from such technology?”

Both coordinators may adjust on the specific content taught within their respective segment by choosing respective guest lecturers or course contents. However, they must ensure basic compliance with the course outline above and therefore allow the smooth transition between segments (as can be seen, the start of each segment focuses on the concluding part of the previous segment(s)). 

Finally, to ensure the overall ‘storyline’ and thus the cohesion of the course, the coordinators may consent on meeting with all guest lecturers, either individually or ideally as an entire group, in order to explain and agree with all relevant stakeholders of the course on the course outline. Each guest lecturer must be aware of her/his role within the course, her/his starting point as well as how to conclude on the lecture. Hence, one cannot overstate the importance of providing guest lecturers with detailed information on their role beforehand.

Main course elements and concepts:

  1. Biomedicine
    • Central dogma of biology 
    • Genome editing technologies 
    • Possibilities and restrictions of genome editing 
    • Current and future applications of genome editing 
  2. Philosophy
    • Utilitarianism
    • Kantian Deontology
    • Virtue Ethics
    • Capabilities Approach
    • Human nature and the ‘natural’
  3. Communication theories
    • Framing
    • Elaboration Likelihood Model
    • Extended Parallel Process Model
    • Co-construction of social-ecological values on Social Media
    • Ethics in Strategic Communication Campaigns

Course content:


The first part of the course focuses on the biological aspect of genome editing. Firstly, the theories behind genome editing such as DNA structure, transcription and translation will be shortly explained. Hereafter the history of genome editing editing technologies will be explained, such as selective breeding. Once this is established current genome editing technologies will be explained and the future prospects of this field. The limits of these technologies will be highlighted from a biological perspective. This first part of the course will finish by showing where in the industry and medicine this technology is already being applied such as the agricultural sector. Future possibilities will be highlighted. This all taken together will allow students to form solid foundational knowledge in genome editing.


The second segment of the course starts with the premise that gene-engineering technologies offer vast potential for future utilisation. However, especially with regards to stem cell research and thus the effect gene-editing inferences may even have on future generations it becomes questionable whether this potential ought to be realised. Students will thus familiarise themselves with the fundamental ethical concepts in order to apply these onto questions of “which purpose should be fulfilled?” by the technology. Furthermore, students should discuss questions concerning humanities responsibilities and legitimacies in interfering with nature. Lastly, mainly in order to provide a coherent transition to the subsequent segment, one could discuss how the public debate has influenced gene-editing research so far.

Communication Design:

During the third part of this interdepartmental module, the focus will shift on the practical implications of gene editing in relation to communication science. How can opinions about the benefits and drawbacks of gene editing be swayed? How can we and should we transform the negative connotations given to gene editing? Can we persuade the public about how gene editing may benefit humanity? How might companies use communication messages to market their genetically edited products? How can policy-makers be approached and influenced about gene editing? We will use several communication theories such as framing or sustainability marketing and the impact of the media to explain how persuasion may function to influence public opinion about gene editing. Furthermore,  this section will encourage students to think about approaches from which genetic editing can be brought to the public agenda, and what specific persuasion tools can be used to influence attitudes towards gene editing.

Course objective:

This honours course challenges its followers due to its multidisciplinary character. It provides profound understanding about how genetic editing relates to biology, philosophy, ethics and communication science. During the seminars students are encouraged to reflect on biological concepts regarding the building blocks of DNA, the field of biotechnology, ethical debates around such pursuit, how gene editing is discussed in the public debate and the media, as well as how organizations communicated their interests.

The main goal of this course is to inspire students to develop a comprehensive answer to the following question: How is society benefiting from the opportunities created by gene editing and how can stakeholders limit the threats of such technology our civilization might suffer from in the future?

Learning outcomes:

  • Evaluate the use of genetic engineering in diverse fields (e.g: food industry, health care, agriculture)
  • Outline the threats and benefits of gene editing for differing stakeholders with varied interests.
  • Reproduce, define and understand relevant theories related to the use of gene editing, its biological background, ethical considerations, and marketing strategies. 
  • Discuss and critically evaluate the status of gene editing in society.
  • Express a substantiated opinion on the most important issues and debates around the specific uses and practices of gene editing.
  • Apply research understandings related to genetic modification cases.
  • Develop personal reasoning and a clear position on the issue of genetic modification. 

Teaching methods and working formats:

The course structure is generally tripartite. It discusses the current advancements and future potentials of the gene-editing technology from a biomedical and philosophical perspective, putting it into an appropriate context using key insights from communication science. Hence, this interdisciplinary outline also requires interdisciplinary teaching. We envision a particularly vivid course within which lecturers encourage students to directly participate in the teaching. This can be done by leading a classroom discussion, involving teamwork elements within the lecture or other hands-on activities. Especially since the topic of gene-editing remains abstract for many members of society still, we strongly propose to organise at least one excursion within this course. Students could visit a laboratory which utilises gene-editing technologies (e.g. for increased yield purposes). Other examples could include an excursion to an advocacy group which aims at limiting gene-modification in order to ‘preserve nature’. The overall goal remains to organise a diverse exchange of ideas, intuitions and knowledge on the technology of gene-editing, its potential as well as what ought to be its purpose.

Relevance of the course:

Extracting DNA from a mosquito to create de-extinct dinosaurs has led to a series of catastrophic events in Jurassic Park. However, now science-fiction has become reality. Using CRISPR technology, researchers are already working on reintroducing extinct animals into our ecosystem. This initiative may cause a Jurassic Park-like chaos, on the other hand, it may also open the window to revolutionary discoveries that could reshape life as we know it.

Biotechnology has gone through a fast-paced development during the 21st century, it is considered one of the most influential innovations of the century. The way we use this technology will determine our pattern of consumption, how we cope with overpopulation and climate change, and how the job market will look like. To what extent we allow biotech to interfere or even become the elementary unit of our lives as humans depends not only on the scientists and engineers who advance these technologies, the politicians who regulate their uses, or the commercial companies who invest in their use but on the public in its entirety.

Biotech holds wonderful promises for the future, however, as this technology increasingly governs our lives, it is essential to talk about the disrupting power and the dangerous effects of gene editing as well. A time where allergy-free food would no longer be a myth, where DNA serves as a tape recorder, or where we design the genetic pool of our offsprings is yet to come, so we must all make the effort to educate ourselves about this revolutionary technology and discover what society must make out of this not-so-futuristic creation. It is extremely difficult to maintain a clear vision about all the thought-to-be fictional scientific novelties becoming realities as we are distracted by all the urgent events going on in our lives. Therefore rewrite history: learn about how biotech might shape our future and join the debate about how gene editing should be used to solve global problems.

Practical Information:

This interdepartmental module does not require previous knowledge in any discipline, therefore it is open to all UvA and VU honours students who desire to broaden their understanding about the topic of gene editing. Presence at the weekly seminars are not mandatory, however rigorous participation is encouraged as these provide the opportunity for lively discussions and the discussion of arising questions from students.

Study Materials:

Segment 1: Biomedicine

Alberts, B., Johnson, A. D., Lewis, J., Morgan, D., Raff, M., Roberts, K., & Walter, P. (2014). Molecular Biology of the Cell (Sixth ed.). W. W. Norton & Company.

Segment 2: Philosophy

Sandel, M. (2009). The case against perfection, Chapter 1: The Ethics of Enhancement, (1st ed., pp. 1-25). Cambridge [United States]: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Frewer, L., Howard, C., & Shepherd, R. (1997). Public Concerns in the United Kingdom about General and Specific Applications of Genetic Engineering: Risk, Benefit, and Ethics. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 22(1), 98-124.

Davies, G., Gorman, R., McGlacken, R., & Peres, S. (2021). The social aspects of genome editing: publics as stakeholders, populations and participants in animal research. Laboratory Animals.

Buchanan, A. E. (2014). Beyond humanity?: The ethics of biomedical enhancement. Chapters 2,4,6-8 (1st ed.). Oxford, UK: The Oxford University Press

Brokowski, C., & Adli, M. (2019). CRISPR Ethics: Moral Considerations for Applications of a Powerful Tool. Journal Of Molecular Biology, 431(1), 88-101.

Segment 3: Communication Science 

Tucker, C. (2013). Using Social Network Analysis and Framing to Assess Collective Identity in the Genetic Engineering Resistance Movement of Aotearoa New Zealand. Social Movement Studies, 12(1), 81–95.

Pelletier, L., & Sharp, E. (2008). Persuasive Communication and Pro Environmental Behaviours: How Message Tailoring and Message Framing Can Improve the Integration of Behaviours Through Self-Determined Motivation. Canadian Psychology = Psychologie Canadienne, 49(3), 210–217.

Calcagni, F., Amorim Maia, A., Connolly, J., & Langemeyer, J. (2019). Digital co-construction of relational values: understanding the role of social media for sustainability. Sustainability Science, 14(5), 1309–1321.

Nisbet, E., Hart, P., Myers, T., & Ellithorpe, M. (2013). Attitude Change in Competitive Framing Environments? Open‐/Closed‐Mindedness, Framing Effects, and Climate Change. Journal of Communication, 63(4), 766–785.

Botan, C. (1997). Ethics in Strategic Communication Campaigns: The Case for a New Approach to Public Relations. The Journal of Business Communication (1973), 34(2), 188–202.

Assessment method(s):

  1. Developing a Persuasive Communication Campaign (50%)
    1. Students are asked to imagine, using their creativity, a product or service using gene editing in groups of 3-4 that would help solve a global problem in society. Then, they are asked to develop a persuasive communication campaign (e.g.: social media campaign, video, intervention) trying to influence attitudes towards gene editing and actual purchasing behavior using relevant communication theories learned during the week. Students are also advised to choose a relevant stakeholder (e.g: government, NGO, international organizations, for-profit organizations) for whom the campaign is being developed and whose image and vision must match the created campaign. By the end of week 7, students are asked to pitch their projects through a 5-minute presentation.
      1. Campaign: 70%
      2. Oral Presentation: 20%
      3. Poster: 10%
  2. Take-home exam (50%)
    1. The take home exam consists of three open-ended questions. These questions should aim at the students’ capabilities to transfer knowledge previously gained within the lectures, seminars and respective literature. The exam asks open-ended essay type questions. The main objective of the Take-Home-Exam is to test students’ ability to combine their own positions and views with theories and concepts studied from biomedicine, philosophy and communication. This test requires analytical skills, creativity and the mastery of the three field’s theoretical understanding.

Study load and composition:

Study Type Hours spent Percentage of total course hours
Seg. 1 50pp. 7h
Seg. 2 125pp. 15h
Seg. 3 66pp. 8h
Sum 241pp. 30h.
Lectures 18h 30,24%
Take-Home-Exam 3h 5,04%
Project 24h 14,32%
Sum 168h 100%