Should We Build Better Babies?

The terms mutation and genetic engineering have taken on fanciful, almost fictional terms in our modern day vocabulary thanks to comic books and the latest offering at the movie theater. These are not just terms created by science fiction writers to make the hero sound realistic or the scientist sound that much more intelligent.

We are currently living in the age of scientific breakthroughs in genetics and fertility that could once only be dreamed of in fiction. The rapid progress made in genetics will make "designer babies" more likely and society needs to be prepared to discuss and plan for the consequences.

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15 It's Not Fiction

Dr. Tony Perry, a groundbreaking leader in cloning, has announced a precise DNA editing technology called CRISPR. This new tool, known as CRISPR/Cas9 system is an incredible new tool for targeted gene manipulation. The system allows for the targeted deletion and replacement of selected DNA sequences from a targeted DNA strand. “Designer babies" are no longer HG Wells territory. The power of this new technology could change the very meaning of what it is to be human. The concept of human frailty and medical necessities could become more D.C comics than Mayo clinic.

14 What Is a Designer Baby?

The scientific term for designer children is called "Germ Line Engineering", referring to the ovum and sperm cells (germ cells) responsible for human conception. The colloquial use term "designer baby" refers to a baby whose genetic makeup to some extent has been artificially selected by genetic engineering combined with in-vitro fertilization.

The genes could theoretically be from another human being, animal or any organism. In the case of non-human genes, the child would be a transgenic organism. The artificial implantation ensures the presence or absence of particular gene characteristics in that "designer" child. In plain terms, "designer children" are the result of using biotechnology, such as CRISPR to choose what type of traits you want in your baby.

The latest research is making designer babies a reality now, using technology developed originally for use in plants and animals.

13 What Is a Transgenic Organism?

A transgenic organism is an organism whose genome has been combined with genes of another species. This is done to offer the transgenic life form traits which it would not otherwise have. A good example of this is the splicing of spider genes into the mammary glands of goats to produce spider silk, one of the strongest and most flexible substances on earth.

The silk is harvested from the lactic proteins and made into fiber stronger than Kevlar (the material bulletproof vests are made from). In human children, the concept of adding immune factors from animals to give children natural immunities to pandemics like the bubonic plague is not out of the question. Children who were spliced with bat immune factors would never have the fear of the bubonic plague.

12 Germline Gene Engineering

The term “Germline” is biologists’ shorthand for the egg (ovum) and sperm, which are combined to form an embryo. By editing the DNA of these two cells before fertilization or the embryo after fertilization, it is possible to correct disease genes and pass those genetic corrections on to the next successive generations.

With this form of genetic modification, you could rid families of maladies like cystic fibrosis. It may also be feasible to install genes that offer lifelong protection against infection and Alzheimer’s. One may even be able to alter the telomeres of a cell and by doing so extend the human lifespan. Such history-making medical advances could be as important to the 21st century as vaccines were in the 19th century.

11 Somatic Cell Gene Engineering

In the grand scheme of genetic modification, "Somatic Cell" genetic engineering targets specific genes of the body in specific organs and tissues, and thus does not affect the genes in the eggs (ovum) or sperm. This type of genetic engineering treats or cures existing conditions, but it does not alter an individual’s entire genetic makeup.

The individual treated with this method of gene therapy does not pass on any of the genetic alterations on to its offspring. This is a delicate surgical alteration as compared to germline modifications, which is like using a shotgun. In germline alterations, all the cells of an organism are changed in a uniformed manner.

10 How Is Cloning Different?

Cloning describes the processes of harvesting DNA samples from the parent organism used to create an exact genetic replica of another organism. The copied material, which has the same genetic makeup as the original, is referred to as a clone.

The most famous clone on Earth is a Scottish sheep named Dolly. There are three different forms of cloning. The first being gene cloning, which creates copies of genes or segments of DNA. The second variety is reproductive cloning, which creates copies of whole animals. The last variety is therapeutic cloning, which creates embryonic stem cells.

Many researchers hope to use these synthesized cells to grow healthy tissue to replace injured or diseased tissues in the human body.

9 What Traits Could Be Changed in a Designer Baby?

Any and all traits contained in the child’s genome are up for change. With gene manipulation, you can select the child’s gender. When selecting the gametes (sperm and egg cells), the geneticist selects the desired "Y" chromosome from the male’s genetic material for a female offspring or an "X" chromosome for a female. You can alter the child’s appearance.

You can select genes for eye color, hair color, and height. You can increase intelligence by selecting the best set of genes coding for intelligence available. You could even use the genes from another proven brilliant individual to replace the genes the child would inherit from its parents. Those genes, which code for hereditary disease, can be replaced.

Without those deleterious genes, the individual would grow up healthy. With somewhat more complex gene manipulation you could change the very personalities' of these future children. These children could be made more aggressive or docile to the parent’s preference.

8 What Physical Traits Are up for Selection?

Embryo screening involves a process called preimplantation genetic diagnosis. Embryos are created by in-vitro fertilization and grown to the eight-cell stage, at which point one or two cells are removed. Scientists then examine the DNA of these cells for defects, and only normal embryos are replaced in the womb.

7 Can a Baby Have Three Parents?

Three-parent babies are human offspring with three genetic parents. They are created through a specialized form of IVF in which the potential baby's mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited from the mother’s mother, comes from a third party. The procedure is intended to prevent mitochondrial diseases, including muscular dystrophy, heart and liver conditions, as well as many other related conditions. The three-parent child is the subject of ardent controversy in the field of genetic engineering and ethics.

6 Pros of Designer Babies

Genetic engineering has an incredible potential to heal and create joy for the population of the planet. This tool can reduce the risks of genetic diseases. There are two ways this is accomplished. In case one, where the illness is hereditary, you replace the defective genes in the somatic cells (non-sex cells) after birth or in utero.

In case two, you alter the reproductive material of the parent reproductive material making the disease extinct in that germ line ever after. The child born of these altered genes will no longer carry the trait for the genetic disorder, therefore, it will be unable to pass it on. Following this, with all carriers of a disease, you could render a genetic disease extinct in one or two generations.

By reducing the number of carriers of a detrimental gene we, of course, reduce the risk of inherited medical conditions. If we as a society embark down the road of genetic modification aimed at improving the self, then many will be forced to participate in order to keep up with others who are making use of it.

The simple fact is with more people of exceeding intelligence and physical power the scales of performance will shift upward. The market for schools and jobs will become that much harder. People will want to give their children the best chance they can to succeed in life. People would scrimp and save for years to afford the gene modifications before having a child. They would go into debt to buy the best traits.

The upside is the commercial use of gene engineering technology would drive massive improvements in the technology.

5 Future of the Technology

As scientists develop a better understanding of genetics through public demand, they will get funding to further improve the science. This means the flaws and risks present in today's technology would be forgotten. Human genetic engineering could become as commonplace as immunization is now.

With the judicious use of gene editing, the human lifespan can be increased by decades. In the near future, a 100 year lifespan could be the equivalent of living into your 60s today. Beyond the mere deletion of bad genes and rearranging already present genes, you can give a child genes that the parents do not carry. The genome of any person plant or animal on Earth is fair game for genetic splicing (adding genes to an organism's genetic code).

4 The Importance of Splicing

By splicing genes from another organism onto an existing genome you create recombinant DNA. If you're asking why would you do this, the answer is simple. You offer the child traits the parents’ genes simply do not offer. These genes can code for strength, immunity, intelligence, stamina, etc. Finally, the effects are cumulative.

The generations of offspring who are descendants of genetically modified people will carry those improvements forever. This will keep them from getting characteristics/diseases that could kill or incapacitate them. This means their children would be less likely to need genetic modification or their children’s children for that matter.

3 The Cons of Designer Babies

The unfortunate fact is that the current state of the technology is far from perfect. In order to select for traits such as gender and developing successful embryos (fertilized eggs) requires the termination of embryos in order to get one successful embryo for implantation. Other than the high attrition rate of fertilized eggs, there are social ramifications of this technology.

This technology could create a gap in society. There would be those with a lineage of genetic advantages and those without. This could create a genetic underclass. This underclass could be made of those with little to no genetic modification. Those who are more intelligent, stronger and healthier than any naturally born human may grow to feel alienated from their fellow man.

Nothing is perfect in reality. Having said that, there is a real possibility of damage to the human gene pool. The creation of new gene sequences can lead to new unintended gene mutations, which could create new genetic disorders.

These disorders could be passed on and could create sterility, infertility or even communicable disorders. Genes often have more than one use and changing one can have unforeseen effects on these traits and how they're expressed. Geneticists are not perfect, therefore their work has an inherent element of unpredictability.

2 The Ethical Questions

There are also huge ethical questions. The babies born of the genetic engineer’s skill have no choice in the matter. If we start using patented factory approved genes, could the offspring of these genes lose their sense of individuality? The other children in the family could be affected by the parent's decision. What if you have an older child without the gene modifications?

Will your older child feel inferior, like an older model car ... perhaps they will. What if you could not afford the gene modifications until you were more established in life and your youngest child has more extensive and up-to-date modifications? Will your less modified children want you to pay to put them on par with their sibling ... is it correct to oblige them? Maybe, maybe not.

If only the rich can afford it, we could end up with a genetically superior upper class. People will start making discriminatory choices about what traits are desirable and those without desirable traits will be looked upon as being inferior. The opposite is also true; those with traits considered undesirable traits could become outcasts. The concept is explored extensively in the movie Gattaca.

1 So Should We Genetically Engineer Infants?

The technology is intriguing and offers far too much possibility to say no, however, it is not yet understood well enough to be of constructive or safe use. Given more time and study, this could be the greatest tool for healing and health mankind has ever found. We must always be careful not to mistake healing/health with our own hubris. It is an extreme task to alter the fundamental nature of your species. The best of intentions can have the gravest consequences.

resources: NPR, Action Bio Science, BBC News

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