The first genetic engineered babies are here. On November 25, 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui, claimed in an online video that he used CRISPR-Cas9, a gene-editing tool, to genetically engineer a pair of embryos to be HIV resistant. Let’s take a look at this consequential event and what it means for mankind. However, I feel it is important to first take a brief look at the history of mankind’s relationship with genetic engineering.
History of Humans and Genetic Engineering
Despite the futuristic overtones of “genetic engineering”, humanity has actually had a long history with the process. Even in prehistoric times, man would use selective and cross breeding techniques to engineer better crops and livestock! One example is the mule, which is a cross-breed between a male donkey and female horse, and has existed since 3000 BC.
The techniques we have used to genetically engineer organisms has always been rudimentary at best but our techniques has improved over time. So much so, that now we are able to specify exactly what traits we wish an organism to exhibit. And upon examining key milestones throughout history, we can hone in on the events that paved the way for such specificity and were a precursor to the November 25, 2018 incident, the day the first genetically engineered humans were announced.
Genetic Engineering Timeline
•1859– The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. It’s release exposed humanity to the fact that populations evolve through a process called natural selection.
•1865– Gregory Mendel developes a model of heredity, by cross breeding pea plants. His experiments garnered him the title of the father of modern genetics.
•1866– The discovery that genetic materials (the blue print to heredity) resides in the nucleus of a cell by Ernst Haeckel.
•1910– T.H. Morgan proves genetic material resides in chromosomes, which in turn resides in the cell’s nucleus.
•1931– The discovery of physical recombination of DNA by scientist Rosalind Franklin.
•1944– Oswald Avery discovers the role of DNA in Genetics.
•1966– Marshall Nirenberg and Har Gobin Khorana deciphers the genetic code.
•1976– Prenatal genetic diagnosis based of DNA discovered.
•1978– The worlds first “test tube baby” born. A landmark achievement in the field of genetic engineering in humans.
•1990– The human genome project launches. Our attempt to map the human genome.
•2000– The completion of the Human Genome Project.
•2018– He Jiankui, Chinese scientist, releases video claiming to have genetically modified human embryos which has come to term. ( Confirmed by the Chinese authorities)
Genetic engineering is not something new to mankind. However, we have never had more control of the process than we do today. And these contributions all led to the day that we were able to genetically engineer the first man.
November 25, 2018
On november 25, 2018, He Jiankui sent tremors through the world when he announces, through a well-coordinated media campaign, that two babies he genetically engineered had came to term. The story was first published in an MIT Technology Review article, then he strategically released a promotional video on YouTube the next day.
In the video, you can watch here, He Jiankui claims “two beautiful little Chinese girls, named Lulu and Nana (the names, for obvious reasons, are pseudonyms) came crying into this world as healthy as any other baby a few weeks ago.” (no doubt, an attempt to alleviate the coming fears from this bombshell). He then states that the twins were born via IVF (In Vitro Fertilization), a medical procedure in which the female’s gamete (basically her sex cells..so her eggs) are fertilized outside of the human body. Then after insemination of the fathers sperm, when the then future twins were just a single cell, He Jiankui then genetically modified the DNA of the cell.
We can discuss the specifics of that modification in another post, which I will place here via hyperlink, but till then lets focus on the fact that genetically engineered humans are here.
The problem is that the topic of genetic engineering is a controversial one, much less genetic engineering done on humans. When He Jiankui performed his controversial gene-editing experiment, he did not consult the scientific community. As a result, the fallout from the scientific community was swift. Scientist world wide condemned his actions and none more so than those in his home country of China, where scientist are already concerned with their image of being the “wild west” of genetic engineering research.
Fall out from the government was equally as swift. On revelations of his experiment, a statement was issued from China’s National health Commission in Beijing, “the incident is a serious violation of national laws, regulations and ethical guidelines”. The country’s Ministry of Science and Technology took it a step further and pledged to “work with relevant departments to jointly improve relevant laws and regulations and improve the scientific research ethics review system.”
Despite the wide spread condemnation does this mean that genetically engineered super babies are here?
Super Babies, Are They Here?
Does this mean that genetically engineered super-babies are here? Actually no. When people envision a future where we are able to utilize genetic engineering to create “designer babies”, typically it is one in which humans are engineered to be stronger or smarter. These traits however, are not dictated by a single gene, which is all current genetic engineering technology is capable of changing. For example, there are an estimated 93,000 different genes that code for height alone and only 697 of those genes having been identified! So while we are able to make changes to a single gene, to edit a embryo to develop into a human with heightened physical or mental abilities is far out of our reach at the moment.
It also should be noted that genetic engineering done to humans is illegal in almost all countries across the world. We are still a long way of from genetically engineered “ super babies”.
What It Actually Means For Mankind
Until this point, mankind’s genetic predisposition has solely depended on the process of natural selection. But now, we are posed to take from nature, or god whichever you believe, the right to govern our own genetic make-up.
This does not mean that we will be able to somehow improve the human population by selecting arbitrarily defined desirable traits” and increasing their re-occurrence. That is almost entirely impossible with genetic engineering.
What is it does mean however, is that for certain diseases arising from a incorrect variation among base pairs, such as sick cell, we may now be able to go inside of our cells and correct that variation essentially curing ourselves of genetic disorders.
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