The Superbabies Are Coming

OK, so my headline isn't exactly accurate, unless "coming" means "coming eventually, but not any time soon." Nevertheless, scientists have succeeded in modifying the genetic code of embryos. For the moment it's about replacing a defective gene that causes an illness, but that's an important step toward our superbaby future, as this NPR story reports:

So Mitalipov's team figured out a way to pluck these little packets of defective mitochondrial DNA out of eggs and replace them with healthy genes from eggs donated by other women. They fertilized the transplanted eggs in the laboratory and showed they could create healthy embryos.

"What we showed is that the faulty genes, which are usually passed through the woman's egg, can be safely replaced. And that way, the egg still retains its capacity to be fertilized by sperm and develop," he says.

The researchers haven't taken the next step yet: They haven't tried to make babies out of these modified embryos. But they have made baby monkeys this way, increasing their confidence it would work.

The natural question is what happens when our understanding of genetics advances to the point where we can not just replace a small number of defective genes, but alter the larger number of genes implicated in the kind of characteristics we might want to alter in our offspring. It isn't as though there's a single gene for intelligence or athleticism or musical ability that one could pluck out and replace with a gene from a donor. But it would be surprising if we didn't eventually figure out how to do it. After all, you can now get your entire genome sequenced for about $1,000, something that cost millions just a few years ago, and scientists are learning more all the time.

Reporting on this kind of issue often follows a script: first there's a description of the science, then a quote or two from a bioethicist saying that we should be very worried about the implications, then some speculation about the crazy stuff this could lead to. What's often not mentioned is that the question "Should we as a society permit this?" is basically irrelevant. We as a society don't really have much say. Once the technology exists, it's going to happen, and even if it gets banned here in the United States (as a number of states have done with human cloning) once it's developed it'll be available somewhere, so if it's compelling enough people will travel to where they need to go to get it.

So I'm pretty sure we're going to have genetically engineered superbabies eventually. It won't happen next year or in ten years, but beyond that it's more a question of when than if. It'll be the wealthy who can engineer their offspring at first, but perhaps as the prices come down it'll become like college: the wealthy can afford top-notch engineering, middle-class families will save up and borrow to get their children something almost as good, and the poor won't be able to get it at all.

On the other hand, Star Trek teaches us that eventually there will be no differences in wealth because there will be no money, and every technological development will be used for the betterment of all humankind. So there's that to look forward to.

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