Friday, March 06, 2015

Germ line editing and human evolution

See related posts on CRISPR. The article also discusses egg stem cell technology.
Engineering the Perfect Baby (MIT Technology Review)

Scientists are developing ways to edit the DNA of tomorrow’s children. Should they stop before it’s too late?

If anyone had devised a way to create a genetically engineered baby, I figured George Church would know about it.

At his labyrinthine laboratory on the Harvard Medical School campus, you can find researchers giving E. Coli a novel genetic code never seen in nature. Around another bend, others are carrying out a plan to use DNA engineering to resurrect the woolly mammoth. His lab, Church likes to say, is the center of a new technological genesis—one in which man rebuilds creation to suit himself.

When I visited the lab last June, Church proposed that I speak to a young postdoctoral scientist named Luhan Yang, a Harvard recruit from Beijing who’d been a key player in developing a new, powerful technology for editing DNA called CRISPR-Cas9. With Church, Yang had founded a small company to engineer the genomes of pigs and cattle, sliding in beneficial genes and editing away bad ones.

As I listened to Yang, I waited for a chance to ask my real questions: Can any of this be done to human beings? Can we improve the human gene pool? The position of much of mainstream science has been that such meddling would be unsafe, irresponsible, and even impossible. But Yang didn’t hesitate. Yes, of course, she said. In fact, the Harvard laboratory had a project to determine how it could be achieved. She flipped open her laptop to a PowerPoint slide titled “Germline Editing Meeting.”

Here it was: a technical proposal to alter human heredity.


Bermingham told me he never imagined he’d have to be taking a position on genetically modified babies so soon. Rewriting human heredity has always been a theoretical possibility. Suddenly it’s a real one. But wasn’t the point always to understand and control our own biology—to become masters over the processes that created us?

Doudna says she is also thinking about these issues. “It cuts to the core of who we are as people, and it makes you ask if humans should be exercising that kind of power. There are moral and ethical issues, but one of the profound questions is just the appreciation that if germ line editing is conducted in humans, that is changing human evolution,” Doudna told me. One reason she feels the research should stop is to give scientists a chance to spend more time explaining what their next steps could be. “Most of the public,” she says, “does not appreciate what is coming.”


Zhengzheng Zhou said...

We have been "changing human evolution" by manipulating the selection side, so this is not entirely new.

Titan000 said...

Only that we did not get to choose what information to add to the gene pool in the 1st place to be selected for or against.

BobSykes said...

Eugenics never goes away. It just hides for a while.

Titan000 said...

Is eugenics evil?

TheAccomodator said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TheAccomodator said...

eugenics is the reason why your not still swinging from trees in sub-saharan Africa

kurt9 said...

Doudna is reacting to a non-existent problem. The recent work out of BGI indicates that the genetics of IQ (and other personality traits) are much more complex and less straight forward than was commonly assumed. This suggests that we will not be making any "designer babies" anytime soon no matter how advanced our bio-techiques become. Personality traits such as IQ, executive function, and the like are clearly biological. However, the genes behind them are not being identified. This suggests that these traits may indeed not be genetic. I think the molecular biology of the womb environment (while the fetus is gestating) may be where these traits are really set.

Rastus Odinga-Odinga said...

And a good thing too.
But serious eugenics will never happen, alas. It will be stopped by an unholy alliance of evangelical rednecks and liberal rednecks.

Alex Lamb said...

If fetal environment is what really matters, then the traits of the mother should matter much more than the traits of the father. This isn't trivial to study since the mother also has an environmental influence and because there is some difference between couples where the father/mother is smarter, but I think that we should be able to put upper bounds on how much fetal environment matters.

kurt9 said...

True, and this is the experiment to determine if I'm correct about the fetal environment being the determinant.

dxie48 said...

"Why you really do get that from your father"

"Researchers at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine
discovered that although we inherit equal amounts of genetic mutation
from our parents – variants that make us who we are as individuals – we
actually “use” more of the DNA that we inherit from our father."

Endre Bakken Stovner said...

You choose what information to add to the gene pool by choosing your mate. Attraction is a eugenic mechanism.

Titan000 said...

Technology cannot ultimately be stopped for once it gets rolling the side or any people that refuses to adopt it will be rolled over by those who do.

Matthew Maloney said...

[Assuming they find a way to find a way to do this safely]. My main objection is that once we start assuming the role of the algorithm that is evolution, we'll eventually have a select group of (usually) guys with their own biases and 'ideas' about what constitutes a superior human being. Following Hayek, I do not believe a central decision making authority could possibly make better decisions on this matter than the 'market', in this case, the sexual market. Yes, we may moan that women don't find engineers and physicists sexually exciting enough to reproduce and so forth, but tempering with this mechanism to force a outcomes of high IQ nerds or whatever else our beloved central planning Committee on the Betterment of the Human Condition thinks is the 'right outcome' is a pandoras box. We simply do not know enough about human nature and society to be forcing outcomes like this.

Likewise, even devolving decisions on designer babies to parents would result in weird outcomes like people wanting their kids to be very nice or bodybuilders or some other nonsense.

Also, this opens the dark possibility that some people (in places like the Middle East and Russia) would use this mechanism not to design 'superior' beings, but inferior beings that would be a kind of docile, harmless, slave class to follow orders or indeed sex slaves of some sort.

Ah, science - always more interesting than science fiction!

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