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.”