Inheritable characteristics are passed from one generation to the next through DNA, a molecule that is present in all our cells. DNA is divided into genes, units of genetic information, each giving raise to a different physical feature or characteristic trait of the creature it forms. In the past three decades, scientists have learned how to mix and match characteristics among unrelated creatures by moving genes from one to the other. This is “Genetic engineering. ”
Extensive testing was carried out on many animal species in the 1970’s to try to improve and perfect genetic engineering and it seems certainly possible, although most people believe unethical and immoral, to now, genetically engineer human babies. It is also becoming possible to change the genetic makeup of an embryo, giving rise, eventually, to the possibility of a ‘designer baby’. Now genetic engineers are starting to modify the genes of humans using three approaches: Cloning, which uses the DNA of an existing individual to create a new individual almost exactly genetically identical.
Somatic cell manipulation or “gene therapy”, is the introduction of ‘corrective’ genes into somatic cells (cells of the body that do not pass DNA on to the next generation. ) The idea is to correct the genetic component of a disease or genetic disorder, rather than treating it with drugs. Germline manipulation, which is where changes are made to the germ cells (sperm and eggs), which will be inherited by successive generations. It is still being argued that designing future human generations through germline manipulation should be attempted.
Why are scientists pursuing these techniques when at first glance they appear both dangerous and unnecessary? especially as genetic engineering is a reasonably new concept that we know hardly anything about, there could be unforeseen and disastrous consequences. Some researchers think that somatic cell manipulation is a promising new way to treat serious diseases like cystic fibrosis and in organ repair by generating cloned cells and tissues to insert into existing peoples organs.
Cloning can also be used to create parts suitable for organ transplantation into humans. For purposes such as these I, and many others believe that genetic engineering could be a fantastic new breakthrough in the medical world, and so should be researched further, But How far can genetic engineering be taken? Designer babies? An improved ‘super race’? Some people want to take evolution into their own hands. Germline manipulation can be used to give a baby new genetic characteristics that it could not have gotten from its parents.
By introducing genes into unborn children, with luck, we could make them more intelligent, or beautiful, or athletic, the so-called ‘designer baby’. One process that could possibly be used to create these designer babies in the future is nuclear transfer: First, cells are taken from a human being. These cells are then encouraged to multiply in culture by providing them with appropriate conditions and nutrients. Eggs are then collected from the human and “enucleated”: that is, their nuclei are removed using a micropipette thrust through the tough Zona pellucida, the shell that surrounds a mammalian egg.
The eggs own nucleus is then replaced with a cell taken from the culture and the donor cell is thrust through the Zona using a pipette so that it lies beneath the Zona, next to the egg itself. Then the two cells loosely held together by the Zona are placed in a small electric field, which breaks down their surrounding membranes for an instant; when the membranes re-form they coalesce, and the donor cell becomes incorporated into the enucleated egg.
The result is a reconstructed embryo in which the donor nucleus takes on the role of the nucleus that was removed and the resulting baby will be an exact genetic clone of the person whose cells were first multiplied in culture. (The donor cells could be transformed in culture, ‘engineers’ can manipulate them freely, either by adding genes, removing them, or changing their nature to give the baby the required characteristics before they are transferred into the eggs.
This is not medically necessary and would just aim to ‘improve’ future generations of human beings; to attempt this kind of improvement is known as eugenics. The prospect of a ‘designer baby’ is full of great risks. Genes usually do not control just one characteristic, so changing a gene is likely to have multiple consequences, we also know from experiments on animals and plants that once inserted, the foreign genes can behave unpredictably and may even ‘shut down’ in response to stress or extreme conditions, making it unlikely that the desired results will be produced without creating new problems.
Many engineered plants are discarded because they are deformed and when researchers clone animals or manipulate the cells of animal embryos, the resulting creatures often have severe defects. It can take thousands of tries before the desired results are obtained. This attempt and discard attitude is acceptably in plant and possibly animal studies, where multiple generations can be bred to test if the genetic change performs as expected, but with humans, test generations cannot be bred in a lab.
This makes it difficult for research to go any further. Another problem is insertional mutation, when the foreign gene is inserted into the middle of an existing gene, causing this gene to change or no longer function. If this happened in a human baby, the baby would be born with a defect that may be obvious at birth, or manifest itself in later life or even when the baby grows up and has children of its own. Even to correct a simple genetic defect is very risky, this risk can be worth taking if the disease is severe.
It is a different matter however to engineer a healthy child in hope of adding a few points of IQ or bluer eyes- no mistake would be acceptable. The ‘designers’ of babies would have to be able to offer certainty in the outcome or the baby may suffer late abortion or serious abnormalities. But is it right for parents to decide their children’s future, before they are even born? Another thing that you must take into account when considering the prospect of a ‘Designer baby’ is Ethics. There are many different opinions on the laws, morals, rights, and advancements surrounding ‘designer babies.
To illustrate these I have picked quotes by 2 different scientists, one for and one against: Biologist Daniel Koshland of the university of California is for genetic engineering and said in science magazine: “If a child destined to have a permanently low IQ could be cured by replacing a gene, would anyone really argue against that? It is a short step from that decision to improving a normal IQ. Is there an argument against making superior individuals?… As society gets more complex, perhaps it must select for individuals more capable of coping with its complex problems.
It seems silly to shut our eyes to a new technology like this. ” Lee Silver is a molecular biologist at Princeton university in his book Remaking Eden tells of how designer babies will mean that in the future the human species could divide into 2 separate species, those with expensive genetic improvements and those without, the divide between rich and poor would be permanently encoded in our cells the 2 species may even become unable to cross breed and with “as much romantic interest in each other as a current human has for a chimpanzee!
“Over time, our society will segregate into ‘GenRich’ who control the economy, the media, and the knowledge industry, and the ‘Naturals’ who work as low paid service providers or as labourers. ” In this way, he is against genetic engineering. Other arguments against it include the feeling that it takes away the child’s individuality and that it is against the babies civil rights as it cannot consent to the changes that it will have to live with for the rest of its life. Human Germline engineering is at least a decade away from being on the commercial market but many firms are speeding development of the most controversial technologies.
What’s next? Some groups are trying to establish not only improvements to stop genetic disorders or improve the mental or physical abilities or appearances of humans but want to extend the human life span by decades or centuries! ‘Designer baby’ companies are already establishing high tech anti-aging centres across the US. Are we taking it too far? “No one can be sure how technology will evolve, but a techno-eugenic future appears ever more likely unless an organised citizenry demands such visions be consigned to science fiction dystopias. “