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Gene editing the germline

Today, it was announced that a Chinese research institution had edited the genomes of human embryos that had subsequently been implanted and led to healthy births.

By wondrous coincidence, Ilya Somin of the Volokh Conspiracy posted a great essay defending such gene editing only two weeks ago, and it makes good reading at this time.

11 comments to Gene editing the germline

  • bobby b

    There are actually some very good practical, science-based arguments for moving slowly on this front.

    Gene editing is in a gross and inaccurate place right now. They’ve identified some changes that can be made by taking out relatively huge chunks, but they really have no idea what else they’re changing along with the target changes.

    So, if they start producing babies with desired changes, they don’t know what else might be happening. What if they discover, five generations later, that any edited person who mates with any other edited person produces a child who sprouts tentacles, or cannot process glucose, or requires an ammonia-based atmosphere?

    Farfetched? Maybe. Or maybe not.

  • I can imagine someone at the end of the 30s reading the work of Heisenberg and Weizsäcker, and then of Hahn and Meitner, and thinking the time and place of these discoveries not unmitigatedly ‘wondrous’. The thought of the Chinese state having the power to make future citizens more as that state would wish certainly gives me pause for thought.

    I agree with bobby b (November 27, 2018 at 5:06 am) that we are far from anything – let alone from that – yet. And, of course, I also think that we in the west had better track whatever the Chinese are doing – especially if it is not announced.

  • Penseivat

    I wonder how long it will be before it goes from an advancement in medical science to experiments in military science? As China is involved, perhaps this was the plan all along, if it’s not already taking place, with the aim of producing a race of subservient, robotic, soldiers.

  • As China is involved…

    And there would not be military involvement if this happened in the country with the world’s largest military expenditure? 😆

  • the other rob

    Daniel Suarez has a rather good novel that, while definitely fiction, does a decent job of highlighting the main areas of concern around such matters. It’s called “Change Agent”, iirc.

  • Mr Ed

    It should be borne in mind that gene editing as a principle can be a means of removing deleterious genes, e.g. alleles for cystic fibrosis, where one or both parents are carriers and with autosomal dominant conditions, the gene involved is effectively automatically deadly.

    When single points are involved, it should be relatively straightforward. However, the interaction of genes and extra-genetic DNA is not fully understood, so there may be consequences unknown and unknowable from gene editing, but losing Huntington’s Chorea is a pretty good start and surely worth the risk.

    Furthermore, it is not as if there is a ‘gene’ for intelligence, like Mendel’s pea flower colours, it is far more complex than that. I note in the article that the author addresses the ‘unfairness’ of getting good genes, so what’s driving the opposition? Is it just another venting of socialist envy? Is it ‘ethics’? If the option is not being born, or being born with a deadly or serious disadvantage, quite who is wronged? The whole bioethics ‘industry’ seems to me at present to be a middle-class job creation scheme for people who don’t want to do a real job, but that is another topic.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “I wonder how long it will be before it goes from an advancement in medical science to experiments in military science? As China is involved, perhaps this was the plan all along, if it’s not already taking place, with the aim of producing a race of subservient, robotic, soldiers.”

    Redesigning the personality through genetic means is so far off that there’s no point in speculating. By the time it’s even possible (and frankly, I doubt there’s much military advantage in ‘robotic’ slaves compared to what they’ve already got) there will be countermeasures.

    The obvious initial military applications would be strength and stamina – those Kenyan/Ethiopian athlete genes would be handy, for example – and immunity to particular toxins and diseases. You could spray an area and your own troops would be immune. Other cool talents that might be possible would be extra senses, like the ability to see in infra-red or ultra-violet, the nasal abilities of a bloodhound, or the magnetic sense of a homing pigeon.

    But personally I don’t see it happening. Biological organisms are so weak and vulnerable in warfare compared to machinery that they’ll more likely be abandoned entirely. And so sloooow! It takes around 20 years between inventing your new super-soldier and being able to use him. You know how much technology moves on in 20 years?! The future of the military is in automation – drones, nanotech, programmable pathogens, sensors, software. The only thing human soldiers have still got going for them is independent intelligence in unstructured environments. Either they’ll find a way to automate that, or for a time you’ll get a human controlling a cloud of tech around them, providing guidance.

    More likely, I think the Chinese interest is purely economic. Remember, they’re not really Communists any more – they’re just hanging on to the old Communist machinery of state while they get their country ready for the future. That allows them to break ethical rules that we feel bound by, and so gain an advantage. Gene engineering is a technology with as much potential as computers had in the 1950s. They want to get in on the ground floor of that wave. They want to use their relative lack of ethical bounds to get a head start on the West.

    The basic ethical problem with gene-editing humans is that there are going to be screw-ups while we acquire the experience and knowledge to do it properly. And while it’s not a problem to delete a bit of software full of bugs and try again, people get squeamish about doing the same with babies. In comparison, the ethical issues involved in gene tech that is working properly are minor. That’s mostly cultural – we’re not used to the idea, so we don’t like it. Generations that grow up with it won’t have a problem with it.

    Like the IQ thing. People have this horror of a world in which some/most people are clever, but they’re not. But of course this describes our world exactly today – with millions of people flipping burgers, unable to get one of the jobs that pays ‘a decent wage’. In other words, it has the exact same effect as a good education. And thus, the same solution can be foreseen – that they will solve the “rich people cementing their advantage by buying intelligence for their offspring” problem by offering ‘free’ state gene editing. They’ll make it part of the welfare system.

    Once useful new technologies are invented, they’re going to happen. Ethical squeamishness and laws can delay things for a while, but one way or another somebody will do it, and then everyone else will find a way to copy it just to keep up. Our current age has been one of the most fascinating in all the history of mankind – the birth of software. But I think the next couple of centuries are going to be even better! I’m so, so jealous!

  • staghounds

    “it sparked global outcry and pleas from scientists not to make a baby using the technology, at least for the present” when they announced the practicality in 2015, now there are babies.

    “We can give our children immunity from HIV. “Go slow”, what is wrong with you round eyes?”

  • Fred Drinkwater

    Before getting too dewey-eyed about this news, you should look at Derek Lowe’s analyses:

  • Paul Marks

    If a baby has s serious defect that will kill the child or lead to great suffering – this form of medical treatment (gene editing) is clearly justified. After all in the modern world the de fault response to anything serious being wrong with a baby is ABORTION. People who are so opposed to gene editing that they prefer the babies are aborted, are seriously morally disordered.