Designer babies are no longer just a science-fiction fantasy, thanks to CRISPR technology

Jake Baker  ·  August 03, 2017  ·  Featured, Tech

By Nathalie Basha

Science is not far off from humans being able to design babies. You know, like blue eyes, brown hair, tall and athletic... that sort of thing.

We've heard about it in science-fiction moves before, but it's very close to being a reality. In fact, in many ways, it already is.

The technology is here, now. It's called CRISPR Cas9. In the simplest of terms, CRISPR can alter the DNA sequence of any organism by removing sections from the genome, thereby triggering a cell repair response that eventually changes the outcomes of that organism. In this case, scientists can implement this process in an embryo to manipulate the DNA to a specific outcome.

We spoke to Professor George Church of Harvard Medical School and Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg of The Fertility Institutes about CRISPR's potential to create designer babies.

This process, removing and editing DNA sequences, is actually a naturally occurring one. Scientists discovered that bacteria implement CRISPR all the time to fight off viral infections, splicing the DNA double helix and removing the offending viral DNA, then repairing itself. That's exactly how scientists learned to do this and implement it to our advantage -- from watching bacteria do the same thing.

But it's not an exact science, yet. We can select simple things like eye color using CRISPR, but we are still not able to isolate and remove disease genes, like Cystic Fibrosis, or the gene for obesity. That is the goal, eventually. It's expensive to do (though less so than other gene-therapy predecessors) and we need much more research. The genetics that make us who we are are incredibly complex.

The biggest issue we face with CRISPR today is the ethical debate. The idea that we can manipulate human genome sequences and, essentially, "play god," makes some people bristle at the thought. It opens a Pandora's box of questions. We are not sure what the long term cause and effects of gene-editing are. What if we engineered an embryo with incredible brain power, but the resulting human is lacking critical social skills? The various ways this could go sideways is staggering, so much so that one of the co-inventors of CRISPR, Dr. Jennifer Doudna, has called for a worldwide halt on applying it to human genomes until we can move forward in the most responsible way.

Ethics or not, we are closer to engineering designer babies than ever before. It's no longer just a figment of science fiction.

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