Superhuman designer babies
To certain people, the possibilities of editing the human genome are reminiscent of a biological revolution, a utopian fantasy wherein we have the power to drastically improve not only humans, but the entire world. To others, we’ve entered into a dangerous game from which there is no return, meddling in unchartered territory absent of guidelines and rife with potential for malpractice of epic proportions.
Realistically, though, in terms of designing babies to our liking and controlling complex traits such as intelligence, personality, or temperament, we may be far from accomplishing such a feat. Choosing simple traits such as hair or eye color might indeed be possible with CRISPR, but parents already have the ability to select their child’s sex, eye color, hair color, and skin complexion with preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), albeit at a hefty price.
But might we use CRISPR to create super intelligent babies who are predestined for Mensa, with the personality of a benevolent saint and an athletic prowess that would make even Tom Brady jealous? Not so fast, futurists…. Just like we need to avoid the pull of pseudoscientific nonsense that arises as a result of a new scientific buzzword, we need to approach one of the most significant discoveries in genetic engineering with appropriate apprehension and respect for science. We need to learn what traits can and can’t be meaningfully adjusted, at least, right now.
Applying CRISPR to make designer babies is much less scientifically important in the eyes of many researchers, who strive to use the gene editing tool to create more effective models to understand and cure diseases and elucidate the purpose of many genes which remain unknown to this day. Right now, CRISPR is being used in preliminary stages and creating designer babies does not appear at the top of the priority list for many researchers. Not to mention, the numerous ethical issues around embryo editing would surely slow the possibility of selecting superior traits for your baby, if not halt it altogether.
The reason why making designer babies might not be so realistic lies in the fact that complex traits are not caused by a single gene, but most likely a combination of genes and epigenetic marks placed on top of genes as a result of the environment and our experiences. It’s not just about the right genes or the right environment, but rather, these traits rely on the right combination of the two.
A major use of CRISPR is to learn about what certain genes actually do. Even though we have massive amounts of data and have sequenced the entire genome of various organisms, understanding the purpose of each gene is quite difficult. CRISPR will enable researchers to precisely knock out certain genes as well as add or remove epigenetic marks and investigate the effects.
Truthfully, scientists cannot say for certain what makes someone intelligent or have a calm temperament. The interplay and sheer number of possible variables that must work together are vast and intricate. Therefore, how could we direct CRISPR to accomplish this so soon? Not to mention, the technology is not free of errors and 3 billion base pairs of the human genome poses a massive hurdle, even for CRISPR. Designer babies are, for now, not of main focus for the scientific community.
Bioethicist Henry Greely of Stanford University in California discussed at length the unlikely possibility of the designer baby fantasy in a recent piece published in The Guardian. “I don’t think we are going to see superman or a split in the species any time soon,” he said, “because we just don’t know enough and are unlikely to for a long time – or maybe for ever.”
Future directions for CRISPR
According to the Pew Research Center, Americans have mixed emotional reactions to the possibility of using gene editing to reduce a baby’s risk of serious diseases, more people expressing concern or worry (68%) rather than enthusiasm (49%). Although similar outcry and apprehension is typically expressed in response to new biomedical technology, especially that which unsettles our conception of what is “natural”, over time it often becomes more understood and ultimately, more accepted. Could this be the case for CRISPR?
Ultimately, the future of this gene editing system is unknown, but it is a fascinating time in science to follow the progression of such an exciting tool. It brings up many possibilities for deleting genes and curing diseases as well as tampering with our epigenetic machinery and uncovering the function of countless genes.
Right now, we’re pressured by profound and difficult questions that touch on the societal, medical, and ethical consequences of tinkering with the human genome. Perhaps, together as a society, we may slowly and responsibly uncover the answers.