Are Designer Babies Going to be the Future of Mankind?
Over centuries of human existence, we have made significant inventions that have modified the kind of lives we lead today. From the invention of the wheel to the invention of the computer that we carry inside our pockets- we, as humans, have evolved tremendously on account of technological and scientific advancements. Many such innovations have also been made in the field of biology or human reproduction. From birth control to IVF procedures- we have come a long way.
But what if there was a technology that allowed modification of the DNA present in our genes to create a ‘designer baby’? Apart from being the feature of a famous movie- you’ll be amazed to know that the technology to create genetically modified DNA exists in the world today. How does the technology work? Is it safe? Are there any ethical concerns revolving around the issue, AND will the future of humanity have genetically designed babies? Let’s find out!
How does it work?
When you alter a baby’s genetic makeup to remove a particular gene(s) associated with a disease, you successfully create a designer baby. How is it done? One way is to use a process is called preimplantation genetic diagnosis. This process analyses a wide range of human embryos associated with a particular disease and selecting seeds that have the desired genetic makeup.
Another less popular method is called Germline engineering, which enables altering a baby’s genetic information before birth. The desired genetic material is introduced into the embryo itself or the sperm and egg cells, either by delivering the selected genes directly into the cell or using the gene-editing technology.
The latter is an illegal procedure in various nations, and the only instance of the process being used was in the case of Lulu and Nana, a pair of Chinese twins in 2019. Subsequently, the development attracted widespread criticism for the same.
CRISPR/Cas9 system- a genome editing technology
Genetic editing is done either by removing small sections of the existing genome or by introducing new segments of DNA into the genome. CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a genome editing technology introduced by researchers Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna. The technology allows scientists to cheaply and very rapidly alter the genome of almost any organism. CRISPR makes use of an enzyme called Cas-9, which is used to cut out selected sections of DNA or add new units to the existing DNA.
Why is the procedure controversial?
The technology introduced by CRISPR can be used on various organisms, plants, and animals to modify their DNA since all living species contain genes. This provides much scope for altering a bodies’ immune system to destroy cancer cells or battle sickle cell anemia by introducing non-sickle cell genes. It can be used to make better crops, enhance drugs, and to treat severe diseases. However, the debate regarding the ethical standing of gene editing comes in when deciding what do we want to use it for.
The gene-editing technology can be used on somatic cells and germ cells, which offers varied results. While any changes made to somatic cells, which are particular cells present in, say, our liver or lungs- will not be passed onto the future generation. However, changes made to germ cells will be transferred into the subsequent generations. Hence, posing a threat to civilization.
Credits: Netflix: explained
Using the gene-editing technology for cosmetic purposes such as changing the eye color, introducing freckles, etc., further questions the moral and ethical standards of the procedure. It is no surprise that biological processes such as these are not very economical and can only be accessed by a particular section of society. This is arguably one of the most controversial arguments against designer DNA. This would enable parents or doctors will to dictate traits such as gender, height, and even the intellect of their baby. This would give an advantage to people who can afford gene-editing, potentially leading to a genetic class system—enabling science to enable evolution instead of nature.
What to expect in the future?
The authors of the news study have not dismissed the ethical concerns surrounding the same and have actively advocated the use of technology only for preventing serious diseases and conditions. Despite the concerns regarding the possibility of a ‘genetic class system,’ the fact remains that Talents and traits are genetically complex—about93,000 genetic variations influence even more superficial features like height. Gene editing will not and cannot guarantee ‘superior’ traits and won’t be capable of curing several illnesses.
“While I appreciate the fear, I think we need to realize that with every technology we have had these fears, and they haven’t been realized,” said R. Alta Charo, a bioethicist at University of Wisconsin-Madison, who co-led the national committee on human embryo editing
Designer babies or designer DNA can hence, be something that can find a middle ground between advancement and ethics in the future.