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We are challenging our evolution

We have just entered the era of designer babies with China’s first gene-edited baby. The question is whether they can use this newfound superpower in a responsible way that will benefit the planet and its people.

analysis Updated: Nov 27, 2018 16:17 IST
one-gene-one-protein,CRISPR,CRISPR technology
In a nutshell, we don’t know the limits of the new technologies, can’t guess what lifetime effects a single gene alteration will have on a single individual, and have no idea at all what effects alteration of genes in sperm or ova or a foetus will have on future generations(SHUTTERSTOCK)

A Chinese scientist from a university in Shenzhen claims he has succeeded in creating the world’s first genetically edited babies. He told the Associated Press that twin girls were born earlier this month after he edited their embryos using CRISPR technology to remove the CCR5 gene, which plays a critical role in enabling many forms of the HIV virus to infect cells.

We have just entered the era of designer babies. We will soon have the ability to edit embryos with the aim of eliminating debilitating disease, selecting physical traits such as skin and eye colour, or even adding extra intelligence. But our understanding of the effects of the technology is in its infancy.

The technology is CRISPR: clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. Discovered by scientists only a few years ago, CRISPRs are elements of an ancient system that protects bacteria and other single-celled organisms from viruses, acquiring immunity to them by incorporating genetic elements from the virus invaders. CRISPRs evolved over millions of years to trim pieces of genetic information from one genome and insert it into another. And this bacterial antiviral defence serves as an astonishingly cheap, simple, elegant way to quickly edit the DNA of any organism in the lab.

Until recently, experimenting with DNA required sophisticated labs, years of experience, and millions of dollars. The use of CRISPRs has changed all that. CRISPRs work by using an enzyme — Cas9 — that homes in on a specified location in a strand of DNA. The process then edits the DNA to either remove unwanted sequences or insert payload sequences. CRISPRs use an RNA molecule as a guide to the DNA target. To set up a CRISPR editing capability, a lab only needs to order an RNA fragment and purchase off-the-shelf chemicals and enzymes— costing only a few dollars.

Because CRISPR is cheap and easy to use, it has both revolutionised and democratised genetic research. Thousands of labs all over the world are experimenting with CRISPR-based editing projects. China has taken the lead, largely because it lacks the regulations and moral constraints that other countries abide by.

In 2014, Chinese scientists announced that they had successfully produced monkeys that had been genetically modified at the embryonic stage. In April 2015, another group of researchers in China published a paper detailing the first ever effort to edit the genes of a human embryo. The attempt failed, but it shocked the world: this wasn’t supposed to happen so soon. And then, in April 2016, yet another group of Chinese researchers reported that it had succeeded in modifying the genome of a human embryo in an effort to make it resistant to HIV infection.

This transgressed a serious boundary. We know too little to predict the broader effects of altering or disabling a gene. In the 1960s, we imagined rather naïvely that as time went by, we would understand with increasing precision the role of each gene in making us what we are. The foundation of genetics for decades, once biology’s Central Dogma, was the hypothesis that each gene codes for a single protein. Knowing the correspondences, we would have tools useful not only for research but also for curing and preventing disease with a genetic basis and perhaps for augmenting human evolution.

The one-gene-one-protein Central Dogma, though it continues to pervade our common beliefs about genetics, underwent conversion when scientists realised that many proteins comprise several polypeptides, each of which was coded for by a gene. The Dogma therefore became one gene, one polypeptide. But what sounded the entire Dogma’s death knell was the discovery in the early 1970s that a single gene can code for more than one protein. The discovery that the human genome contains only about 30,000 genes to code for some 90,000 proteins brought that home; but what makes our understanding appear spectacularly inadequate is the discovery in 2000 that a single gene can potentially code for tens of thousands of proteins.

In a nutshell, we don’t know the limits of the new technologies, can’t guess what lifetime effects a single gene alteration will have on a single individual, and have no idea at all what effects alteration of genes in sperm or ova or a foetus will have on future generations. For these reasons, we have no knowledge of whether a particular modification of the human germline will be ultimately catastrophic, and no basis for considering that tampering with heritable genes can be humane or ethical.

Because of technologies such as obstetric ultrasonography, India already has a gender imbalance: for every 107 males there are 100 females. Given the disposition of parents to favour males, preference for fairer skins and higher intelligence, and even extra height and strength, there will soon be competition to create perfect children with these technologies. Except we don’t know what perfection is; intelligence and physical traits aren’t what make humans what they are, the greatest people are usually the most imperfect.

The reality is that we have arrived at a Rubicon. Humans are on the verge of finally being able to modify their own evolution. The question is whether they can use this newfound superpower in a responsible way that will benefit the planet and its people.

Vivek Wadhwa is a distinguished fellow at Carnegie Mellon University at Silicon Valley and author of Driver in the Driverless Car, how our technology choices will create the future

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Nov 27, 2018 16:17 IST