Jennifer Doudna, co-discoverer of CRISPR and co-author of A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution, participated in a World Science Festival panel recently called “CRISPR in Context: The New World of Human Genetic Engineering.”
One of the sci-fi implications of CRISPR/Cas9 is “designer babies.” That is, parents getting to choose the genetic makeup of their unborn children by selecting which genes the baby will or won’t have: eye color, hair color, intelligence, strength, etc. Since there are hundreds of thousands of genes involved and we don’t know what they all do, Doudna says we are very far away from that possibility. Some phenotypes have multiple genes informing them, and some genes are responsible for multiple functions. “It’s not like genes are Legos or Mr. Potato Head where you just trade out a trait,” said Bill Hurlbut, who was on the panel with Doudna.
The likely upshot of designer babies is that the rich will afford to have their children be “better, faster, stronger,” while the poor’s children will be normal with no hope to compete with these genetically superior peers. Hurlbut half joked, “For the next few decades, the poor kids will be the fortunate ones because their parents won’t experiment on them.” Falling into the wrong hands, CRISPR/Cas9 could also be a vehicle for eugenics. Doudna admitted she once had a dream that she was being escorted into a room where there was someone waiting to learn all about CRISPR. When she got there, it was Adolf Hitler (with a pig face). Imagine if someone with the power of CRISPR wanted to make all babies exactly the same. Maybe it’s our ignorance that is saving us from these futures.
But not all gene editing is done selfishly or for ill. Doudna predicts that the next thing that will happen with CRISPR/Cas9 is progress in fighting sickle cell or other single-gene diseases. Then maybe father down the line, they can start tackling complex, multi-gene diseases. He Jiankui, the biophysicist who “CRISPR-ed” the first human embryos, claims he did it to help prevent the twins from being infected with HIV (their father is HIV positive). While this may seem noble on the outside, there are a number of problems with this “achievement”:
- It was done in secret
- It did not follow China’s strict scientific regulatory process
- He wanted to bring honor to China by being first
- It was not necessarily done correctly
“The first CRISPR baby needed to be out in the open,” said Jamie Metzl, also on the panel. For it to have been done in secret undermines global confidence in science. Now, the World Health Organization has called for a registry of anyone doing germline editing so that “nothing is happening in the shadows,” says Metzl.
He Jiankui’s work broke Chinese law and violated the ethical promises of the scientific community. He was fired and has gone quiet for the time being. As a result of his work, China has passed new laws to prevent this kind of secret work in the future. Although he broke the law, Bill Hurlbut, who knows He Jiankui, who they called “JK,” says JK claimed he wouldn’t have done it if there had been a real moratorium against genome editing in place. Doudna thinks that a moratorium is not useful because she wants to invite discussion so that we can learn from this incident. “I’d rather not see that conversation shut down.” Banning editing also bans conversation about editing.
In the race to win, it is said that JK did it for his nation, China. In fact, Metzl’s book, Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity, predicted that the first CRISPR baby would happen in China. (He Jiankui’s announcement was added in at the last minute before the book went to press.) Hurlbut, who is a bioethicist, says that JK had been under a lot of pressure and was a product of the scientific culture in China, not a “villain,” as Metzl called him. He’s someone who didn’t have a background in ethics and didn’t view the world broadly. “When the full story comes out,” said Hurlbut, “people are going to be amazed” by what JK thought and what actually happened.
There is also much doubt that JK’s attempts to protect the babies from HIV was successful. He was not a specialist in embryos or genetics, but you don’t need to be to use CRISPR/Cas9. You can buy a CRISPR kit off Amazon and learn it in a few weeks. (The kit is for bacteria, not human embryos, mind you.) It’s easy to use, but it’s difficult to do it well. And some of that probably has to do with the fact that we just don’t know what every gene does. There is now speculation that editing the gene that JK did will make the babies more susceptible to the flu and could eventually lead to a shortening of their lifespans.
Because you need to have a much deeper understanding of individual genes than we currently have, Metzl predicts that the future of babymaking will not involve CRISPR so much as it will human selection. That is, you can get ten fertilized eggs (that belong to you and your partner) and then choose of the ten which is the one you want to implant. You are not doing any manipulation of the gene. You are simply choosing which potential baby will live and which won’t. This would “naturally” limit the number of babies born with gene-level diseases or susceptibilities. In this method, you do not need a complete understanding of the human genome, like you do with CRISPR. Is this the end of procreative sex? Leave your thoughts in comments.