Stephen Hawking thinks that artificial intelligence will take over in the near future and bioethicists now think the ‘designer babies’ dream could come true, so the debate must start now. I remember answering a question in my GCSE biology exam on the consequences of genetic engineering, amongst the typical answers; ‘higher crop yields’, ‘increased antibiotic resistance’ and ‘gene transfer’ I also wrote ‘designer babies’, not really knowing the implications. I only wrote that because that’s what I’d been taught.
My last article on IVF nicely precedes this as it makes an extreme contrast to those who have trouble conceiving, to those who have so little trouble conceiving that they’d like to set out a dazzling path of beauty for their baby. This is taking it a little too far I know, as it’s hard to imagine that the human race has become so image conscious that they’d start interfering with an embryo not even past the 12 week mark…
Genetic engineering has propelled science into an era of prosperity where political problems around the world, such as malnutrition and poverty, can theoretically be cured by genetic manipulation. Genetic engineering is often muddled with cloning. Genetic engineering involves directly manipulating the genetic material of an organism. This may be done by inserting new bits of DNA from other organisms, or generated sequences of DNA, into a host. Pieces of a hosts DNA can also be cut out using enzymes, called restriction endonucleases. Essentially it’s like snipping off edges of a jigsaw piece, adding bits and fitting it back again to slightly alter the original picture. Cloning however produces an organism with identical genetic material to that of the original organism, a bit more sci-fi.
Genes expressing a favourable trait are often inserted into or replaced in an organism. We now get insulin from genetically modified bacteria (ew!), but it is completely safe and sterile, which has enabled diabetes to become easier to control and treat. Plants have been modified to confer insect resistance and herbicide tolerance. This is particularly useful in the developing world where drought-tolerant crops can be used to increase crop yield and the livelihood of struggling farmers. During my research, to my dismay I came across ‘GloFish’, a genetically modified pet first sold in 2003, patented by Yorktown Technologies (an American company, of course). They are exactly what you’d expect and come in a variety of different colours, including my favourite aptly named, ‘Moonrise Pink’. GloFish are zebrafish (what’s wrong with stripes?!) genetically modified to contain a gene encoding a fluorescent gene, usually from jellyfish and coral. Sorry to disappoint those reading who’d think one of these would be a great addition to their mad scientist costume, but they’re only available in the US.
It’s comical to read through their website (GloFish) and see the response to a frequently asked question as; “they do not actually glow” (bit of a let-down!) and how the fish “can inspire a love of science at home”; no, they are what I see as the first primitive form of designer pets. What if we humans thought our babies would look more appealing and attractive by being a different colour? Have we already unintentionally laid the foundations for designer babies?
So why do we need to act now? A BBC article has reported that genetic technology is ‘progressing rapidly and making designer babies more likely’. Advances in the field include more precise editing of DNA at conception in mice. The scientist commandeering this technique boasts out the elaborate phrase, “It is approaching 100% efficiency already, it’s a case of ‘you shoot you score’.” It makes me wonder what his motive may be, if he’s so concerned about warning the BBC of a probable designer baby epidemic, then why carry on? This technique, as with many scientific breakthroughs can be dangerous in the wrong hands, but life changing in the right. The technique could aid fertility treatments, cut out cancer-risk genes and inherited genes for cystic fibrosis. Looking at it from the point of view of a concerned parent makes it more acceptable, if my (hypothetical) husband and I both carried the recessive allele for cystic fibrosis, I’d want intervention at the highest level. If given the opportunity to ‘design’ a baby without the disease, I wouldn’t hesitate championing such a method. Genetically testing embryos for disease and life-threatening mutations during IVF can prevent them being passed down generations, maybe even ousted. It’s situations like these that make the ethics of science extremely difficult; where do we draw the line at what is a ‘bad mutation’? Could this eventually lead to cutting out of every undesirable mutation? But it has the potential to save lives; surely it’s worth the risk. That’s why I’m glad I’m not the decision maker.
Currently in the UK genetic modification of germ cells (sperm and eggs) is illegal, but the potential is there. Is it ethical to deny a couple the rights to a healthy child when we know the technology is available? Scientists seem to be creating a Frankenstein’s monster; we have the potential to design our own babies, but make a mistake and we don’t know how ugly they’ll turn out. The scientific consensus is as always to approach this technology with caution and an open mind, make no promises and of course, be very careful what you tell the public.