At his labyrinthine laboratory on the Harvard Medical School campus, you can find researchers giving E. Coli a novel genetic code never seen in nature. Around another bend, others are carrying out a plan to use DNA engineering to resurrect the woolly mammoth. His lab, Church likes to say, is the center of a new technological genesis—one in which man rebuilds creation to suit himself.
When I visited the lab last June, Church proposed that I speak to a young postdoctoral scientist named Luhan Yang. A Harvard recruit from Beijing, she’d been a key player in developing a powerful new technology for editing DNA, called CRISPR-Cas9. With Church, Yang had founded a small biotechnology company to engineer the genomes of pigs and cattle, sliding in beneficial genes and editing away bad ones.
As I listened to Yang, I waited for a chance to ask my real questions: Can any of this be done to human beings? Can we improve the human gene pool? The position of much of mainstream science has been that such meddling would be unsafe, irresponsible, and even impossible. But Yang didn’t hesitate. Yes, of course, she said. In fact, the Harvard laboratory had a project under way to determine how it could be achieved. She flipped open her laptop to a PowerPoint slide titled “Germline Editing Meeting.”
Here it was: a technical proposal to alter human heredity. “Germ line” is biologists’ jargon for the egg and sperm, which combine to form an embryo. By editing the DNA of these cells or the embryo itself, it could be possible to correct disease genes and pass those genetic fixes on to future generations. Such a technology could be used to rid families of scourges like cystic fibrosis. It might also be possible to install genes that offer lifelong protection against infection, Alzheimer’s, and, Yang told me, maybe the effects of aging. Such history-making medical advances could be as important to this century as vaccines were to the last.
That’s the promise. The fear is that germ-line engineering is a path toward a dystopia of superpeople and designer babies for those who can afford it. Want a child with blue eyes and blond hair? Why not design a highly intelligent group of people who could be tomorrow’s leaders and scientists?
Just three years after its initial development, CRISPR technology is already widely used by biologists as a kind of search-and-replace tool to alter DNA, even down to the level of a single letter. It’s so precise that it’s expected to turn into a promising new approach for gene therapy in people with devastating illnesses. The idea is that physicians could directly correct a faulty gene, say, in the blood cells of a patient with sickle-cell anemia (see “Genome Surgery”). But that kind of gene therapy wouldn’t affect germ cells, and the changes in the DNA wouldn’t get passed to future generations.
In contrast, the genetic changes created by germ-line engineering would be passed on, and that’s what has made the idea seem so objectionable. So far, caution and ethical concerns have had the upper hand. A dozen countries, not including the United States, have banned germ-line engineering, and scientific societies have unanimously concluded that it would be too risky to do. The European Union’s convention on human rights and biomedicine says tampering with the gene pool would be a crime against “human dignity” and human rights.
The human race is dying. It certainly won’t happen this year or even this decade, but the steady degeneration of human DNA would eventually lead to the total extinction of humanity given enough time. The reason that we are heading toward extinction is the increasing number of mutations that are being passed down from generation to generation. According to Dr. John Sanford of Cornell University, every one of us already carries tens of thousands of harmful mutations, and each of us will pass on approximately 100 new mutations to future generations. Humanity is degenerating at an accelerating pace, and at some point the number of mutations will become so great that we will no longer be able to produce viable offspring. This is not going to happen in the immediate future, but already signs of DNA degeneration are all around us. Despite all of our advanced technology, genetically-related diseases are absolutely exploding. Our bodies are weak and frail, and with each passing generation it is getting even worse.
Most people don’t understand this. Most average people on the street just assume that the human race will be able to go on indefinitely.
But the geneticists that carefully study these things understand this stuff. Each generation is successively becoming more “mutant”, and if given a long enough period of time it would mean our end.
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