You've heard of Build-a-Bear. How about Design-a-Baby?
Keeping with our science-themed issue, I decided to do a little research on designer babies. Designer babies? Yes, fetuses whose gender, features, and possibly their future traits are chosen before they are born. In theory, they become “perfect” children, depending on their parents’ interpretation of the word―“I paid for Timmy’s eyes to be blue because the color reminds me of the ocean,” etc. If the ethics of this procedure seem questionable, don’t panic yet: many geneticists believe that our future won’t be dominated by genetically engineered super-humans anytime soon. Traits like height and intelligence are the work of hundreds or thousands of genes, and because genes often have multiple functions, those thousands of edits would affect the body in a lot more ways than altering just a few traits. Writes Nathaniel Comfort, a historian of medicine at Johns Hopkins University: “If you believe that made-to-order babies are possible, you oversimplify how genes work.”
However, genome editing is of great interest to the scientific community, especially with the development of CRISPR (pronounced “crisper”). CRISPR, a naturally occuring genome-editing tool in bacteria, is “like a molecular pair of scissors that can go through that long, long genome and find specific places, make small cuts, and edit it,” biologist Neville Sanjana explains in the WIRED video “Biologist Explains One Concept in 5 Levels of Difficulty.” Currently, most research on genome editing focuses on somatic cells―cells other than sperm and egg (germline) cells―and the potential of new technologies like CRISPR to prevent and treat a variety of diseases such as cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, cancer, heart disease, mental illness, and HIV infection. In fact, in many countries (though not the United States), it is illegal to edit the genomes of germline cells and embryos.
I, for one, am thankful that designer babies are not commonplace, though bioethicist Ronald Green of Dartmouth College says “it is unavoidably in our future.” Let’s try to stall that future as long as possible. I can get behind the use of genome-editing technology to prevent and treat medical conditions in somatic cells, but I think Timmy’s parents should deal with the fact that their son might not have eyes like the ocean.