Human ‘Engineered Babies’ Not Ok?

Gene editing and Eugenics has been in vogue within the scientific community for over 50 years now. However, there is a taboo or phobia within human mind of modifying or re-engineering the human genome. Part of the concerns are ethical and part imperfections associated with any scientific experiments. Our ambivalence is seen while we promote Bt crop and edit genes for diseases but oppose re-engineered because of ethical reasons. I have cited select reasons for our ambivalence without providing a way out since I believe, that is subject to interpretations.

Word Count: 1173; Time to Read – 5-6 minutes; Expertise – Curious Mind.

The Advent Of Dolly

Dolly – An ingenuous experiment conducted in the late nineties, depicted a clone being developed from a mature differentiated cell. As the world believed, it was a landmark event. However, little did they realize that such experiments of creating newer varieties were already conducted by Humans in producing the best yielding agricultural varieties in the late ’60s. Until then, mixing and creating a newer gene pool was within the realms of nature alone. Humans made the stride but it was silent, never associated with any opposition. Instead, these events were applauded across unchallenged. It never crossed our definition of ethos and tailoring when it was done by nature or humans until it remained restricted to plants.

CRISPR Babies Project

CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) are patterns of DNA sequences found in the genomes of bacteria and other microorganisms. If a virus threatens, the bacteria use the CRISPR immune system to identify and destroy the viral genome. Scientists have adopted this system to use in cells from animals and, now, humans. Cas9 is an enzyme that works like a pair of “molecular scissors”. A guide molecule is programmed to tell the enzyme exactly where to cut in the DNA sequence.

CCR5 Plus Minus

He Jiankui was a noted scientist working in Bay area, until he was invited by the Chinese Government, as part of the ‘Thousand Talents Plan’. He masterminded the engineering of designer babies who would be immune to HIV (and AIDS). The CRISPR babies project entailed eliminating a gene called CCR5 with the hopes of rendering the offspring resistant to HIV, smallpox, and cholera. I would like to remind readers of our BT resistant seeds. BT Crops such as Cotton, Corn, Eggplants, Potato, Tomato, Rice, Sugarcane and Poplar are few of the agro products that are Bt transformed. They are disease resistant plus the promoters claim that they provide a higher yield.

If Bt crop is not bad, why modification of CCR5 gene a bad idea? After all, it modifies the immunity by increasing the resistance to HIV, and other diseases.

Designer babies Dilemma

DNA Editing

The scientific community raised key objections for characterizing He Jiankui’s gene-editing plan. Amongst those are –

1. The technology is ethically charged because changes to an embryo would be inherited by future generations and could eventually affect the entire gene pool.

“We have never done anything that will change the genes of the human race, and we have never done anything that will have effects that will go on through the generations,” David Baltimore, a biologist and former president of the California Institute of Technology, who chairs the international summit proceedings, said in a pre-recorded message ahead of the event, which begins Tuesday, November 27. The risks of introducing unwanted mutations or yielding a baby whose body is composed of some edited and some unedited cells. Data on the Chinese trial site indicate that one of the fetuses is a “mosaic” of cells that had been edited in different ways.

2. One risk of CRISPR is that it can introduce accidental or “off-target” mutations. But He claimed he found few or no unwanted changes in the test embryos.

A gene-editing scientist, Fyodor Urnov, associate director of the Altius Institute for Biomedical Sciences, a nonprofit in Seattle, reviewed the Chinese documents and said that, while incomplete, they do show that “this effort aims to produce a human” with altered genes. Urnov called the undertaking cause for “regret and concern over the fact that gene editing—a powerful and useful technique—was put to use in a setting where it was unnecessary.”

Science knows it very well that the retrovirus genome is embedded into our noncoding genome (exons). Can anything be done to these exons? We have examples where viruses cause germline mutations that are inherited from generation to generation? The proponents of this hypothesis emphasize that it is the nature that induces these aberrations. If nature can randomly induce these aberrations, why can’t humans try? Has there been an experiment that has worked perfectly from the get-go? Errors drive perfection and such human endeavors into Eugenics will eventually be perfected.

3. Aren’t Industry innovations driven by profit or fame?

Investigators from Guangdong Province Health Commission said that He had conducted the work “in pursuit of personal fame and fortune, with self-raised funds and deliberate evasion of supervision and private recruitment of related personnel.” The authorities also said He forged ethical review documents and blood tests to circumvent a ban on assisted reproduction for HIV-positive patients.

State Induced Definition of ‘the outer limit‘ of right?

What is Right or Correct? Ethics and morals always evoke discussions and expose our deep-seated differences of ideologies anchored to our understanding. Somewhere, we have never understood our own evolution; we presume we rose through the ranks of Neanderthals… to Homo sapiens. Evidence has started mounting that we could have not made that leap from apes to Homo sapiens (and the current Homo Teknicon), without such experiments.

The Ethics of Discovery, Artificial Intelligence, Eugenics

To address the ethical concerns Stanford Institute of Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence is exploring the option of leveraging AI to reduce the shortfalls of human scientific endeavors and march towards perfection that can be called Ethical. In my view, eventually, ethics is so subjective and prone to interpretations of the perceptions from religious, scientific and natural interpretations.

There is a significant gap between the evolution of mankind (300,000 years) and the recent human history, which dates back to not more than 15000-30000 years at best. What happened during these 270,000 years? That hiatus has been a subject of exploration and we are gradually unraveling those horizons where we have possibly started accumulating little shreds of evidence of possible gene (pool) mixing.

It is too early to call that the above hypothesis to be proven right, but if it is eventually proven correct, posterity will prove that this scientist was possibly not wrong.

My personal view is that we, humans are not capable of understanding ourselves and such studies may be lopsided since there is a potential to produce chimeric havoc. However, I can counter my own fear with the recent genetic studies in agriculture where we have produced better yielding varieties including disease-resistant BT species.

It arouses my curiosity to understand that human beings are ready for consuming genetically modified crops, ready to gene therapy for treating genetics diseases but not yet ready to engineer their babies while they are in situ. As Hoover Institute pointed it out, “We don’t need a moratorium. We need to push the frontiers of medicine to cure more patients”.



As you might have noted, my own ambivalence will gradually tilt in one direction with mounting evidence. I know I am just part of the global wave of such ideologues. However, these are interesting times.

Public Views of Gene Editing for Babies Depend on How It Would Be Used

China jails ‘gene-edited babies’ scientist for three years

Bt Insect Resistant Technology

AI and Ethics

Think Tanks – How gene editing is changing the world

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