Implications of cheap gene-editing technology

Assuming it’s only a matter of time before we can use something akin to CRISPR/Cas9 to edit our genes, is it going to be possible to keep the cap on the potential abuses of the tool? I think it’s inevitable that in my lifetime the technology to selectively edit genes in humans will exist and will be cheap enough that just about anyone has access to it. At first it will be used to treat genetic diseases but the temptation to use it for more and more “corrections” to our genes will be too great to keep it from happening with policy and laws. Once these corrections and customization of our genes is commonplace, it would be almost be unethical not to participate. If the technology exists to give your offspring a higher IQ and certain hair/eye colors/heights/strengths, it would almost be unfair to the kid not to use it. So the question is, is this inevitable? And is it even “bad” that it is? Is there anyway that could possibly prevent this from happening?

Yes it’s inevitable, and I see nothing bad about it. The sooner we can edit our genes the sooner we can improve humanity.

Make us all:

-have increase longevity
-better looking

The main constraint now will be finding out what gene combinations and epiginetic factors contribute to what. And that will likely take decades. The main problem I see at the moment is that I don’t see a major push in trying to figure what what leads to what.

I agree with Salvor that it will lead to great benefits for humanity. I don’t think that what happened with Eugenics in the 20th century should hold us back from making life healthier, longer and happier one day.

And I also think it’s inevitable…since as I’ve pointed out previously, there will not be a hard line between correcting disease-causing genes and enhancement, as all of us no doubt have thousands of rare, sub-optimal genes.
I don’t like slippery slope arguments but I see no obvious place to draw a line…apart from drawing a line at introducing genes that no humans naturally have, but you can hugely change the population while staying within that line.

And I am concerned. I think we’re at the “tinkerer’s” stage of the human genome, where we do not even know the direct effect of changing many genes, let alone the indirect effects. I don’t feel like we’re ready.
If it becomes very cheap and easy to customize the human genome I think they’ll be a period in which most such modifications are illegal but the law is widely flouted. Which will be followed by the laws being dropped in grudging acceptance of the new reality.

From a practical standpoint, the only way to truly know if something will work for us: a gene therapy treatment, or a drug, or even the insulin we take, is if we test them on humans. People can have allergic reactions to pig insulin and even synthetic human analog insulin [cite #1] even though pig insulin only differs by one amino acid from our own [cite #2].

Animal testing is at best a generalization for how our bodies will react, some treatments that flawlessly pass different animals in the testing phase might nonetheless kill humans in those trials. [cite #3]

Thus, for every segment of DNA that we want to definitively define what it does in humans, a group of people must be experimented on. Not just people paid to be test dummies, but modified egg and sperm united and implanted in a woman to be brought to term and raised. (for best/consistent results of course, being sure that all the trillions of cells in your body express the same DNA is best done while we are still single cells [cite #4])

The reason we do not see a major push in learning what leads to what, is because no one wants to step into that ethical/moral minefield just to be seen by the public as a Dr. Mengele who happened to get useful results in between the vast amount of stillbirths/mental and physical oddities/etc that the experimental process will inevitably create.

Even if we started in animal trials to limit the number of dead ends that we would have reached, the real possibility of bringing truth to the book The Secret of NIMH is just more of an ethical quagmire. What do we do with the intelligent rats now that we have created them? Let them colonize a deserted island? Kill them and tell no one? Do further inhumane experiments on them and ignore their human-like pleading?

That said, I think that the first governments to start these black project programs in ernest will be nations like China or Russia, which do not really care about their people or about higher ethical concerns over a military edge.

So I say that this future is “bad;” both for the immediate genetic chaff that will have to live in constant testing and killed, and for the mothers/scientists/society when they learn what immoral acts the government “had” to do in order to give our future children more smarts and muscles.

And don’t think that the Government won’t slip genes into our babies that will increase their passivity and love of the state and suggestibility etc, and publish research papers that secretly wrap those traits up in necessary brain/beauty enhancements.




#4 Modern Genetics in the World of Fiction by Roger Moraga : Clarkesworld Magazine – Science Fiction & Fantasy

Reading your response, TipTapTwo, I can’t help but think that in theory we should be able to use our knowledge of the genome combined with data-mining supercomputer algorithms to get a pretty good idea of what segments of DNA have what effect, comparing known DNAs to it’s owner’s traits. Perhaps even to the extent to know what emergent properties would be found when changes in one segment affect the outcome of another segments’. If enough data is available, it may minimize human testing/experiments to an acceptable level.

IMHO, It’s really an engineering problem now, and those tend to be solved if there is money to be made.

This is my read as well. I dont know the numbers needed, but I’d imagine that collecting the genomes of as many people as possible and getting numerous stats about them into a database for analysis would be ideal. This is what I think there might be resistance to due to some strange security concerns. Or big brother government concerns, fingerprints on steroids. But this seems like the least intrusive path forward to teasing out what does what. And the chinese are already on the case.

This is the major hurdle I see also. There may be babies born who look better and seem smarter but who tend to die of horrific cancers in their twenties. Similarly, I can imagine hucksters springing up, promising to genetically fix medical problems for a fee but whatever they do either has no effect or a negative effect, yet developing loyal followings as many “alternative” cures do.

[Eric Idle]: Feet or pods?[/Eric Idle]

It’s going to happen at some point whether we like it or not. I, for one, welcome our new genetically superior overlords.

How much you want to bet that penis size will be something figured out relatively early?

An interesting post TipTapTwo, and good cites.

But you quoted one sentence out of my post when I was broadly saying a similar thing to you; I’m saying gene editing may be beneficial at some future time when we have greater understanding of the effects, but seems too dangerous right now.

Also you missed the other point I made; that early gene editing will just be giving people genotypes that other people have, not splicing in novel genes.
So at the point where we know we can just change the specific base pairs we want to change, in isolation and without damaging the cell, we know we’re not going to create stillborns or monster babies or whatever.

That’s not to say there’s not risks. Indeed, my point is that if we’re drawing the line at glow in the dark babies or whatever, and say all we’re allowed to do is correct rare, disease-causing genes and then sit back complacently…before we know it we will have groups trying to create superhumans, just utilizing the existing genepool. Because you and I, and every person, have rare, disease-causing genes even if most have not yet been cataloged by science.

Ah, right right, I agree with you Mijin. Sorry, I was trying to only weigh the short term day-to-day moral choices people make vs the how bad those short term choices have to be before the long term gains become unpalatable.

Like we agree that forming America was great, and a major net good for the world throughout its history. But the daily slaughter/subjugation of Native Americans, blacks, Chinese, etc throughout the 500 years since its “discovery” has an ethical tarnish to it that ~maybe~ would make some people choose, in the future with such hindsight, to not repeat such colonialism and expansion at the expense of the natives/workers. Even if the future rewards are vast and seen by many as “worth it.” How large a mountain of suffering and death must we climb before the treasure at the top is deemed immoral and not worth the trip?

I agree that Salvor’s and Mijin’s ideas are the kindest and most realistic ways that we will probably progress down the genetic engineering road. And if the government/businesses keep regulation tight and a leash on the biological supplies and machinery needed to do the engineering, we won’t have to worry about back ally splicers, or cults that cook up diseases that only affect certain ethnic groups, or parents making their children look white and Hollywood so they will have better job prospects. We could have a society that only fixes the things that need to be done.

The cisgeneder people will get all haughty.

In case anyone needs convincing, there is a gene I’ve been trying to knock out in cell lines for years. It’s very highly expressed, so my knockdowns of the RNA transcript were insufficient to change the protein expression greatly. Three years ago, I did a Crispr knockout on a whim. Worked the first time with absolutely no problems. This never happens in the lab. The technology here is astoundingly good.

These questions are difficult. Even the “easy” might be. One example I’ve thought of involves Huntingdon’s disease. As I understand it, the cause is that a certain DNA codon is repeated many times and the larger the number of repeats the earlier the onset. Also, in every generation the number of repeats increases. It is also dominant. So go into the germ cell and delete most of the repeats. Sounds simple and you have removed a scourge from the human race.

But wait a minute. Why do these repeats occur and even increase in every generation? AFAIK, this is not known. So while we have put off the disease for a few generations, we have likely not eliminated it.

Now when you get to things like hair color, stature, and intelligence, any of these traits might be modified by dozens, if not hundreds of genes and we are nowhere near finding out which ones. I suppose we eventually will and then we have to discuss it. Then you get questions like, if everyone’s a genius, who’s going to build roads and collect the garbage? Shades of Brave New World and I don’t want to live there.

Just to ask, what would happen to the “experimental babies”? Abortion reduces the experimental value. Would they just hand over the kid to the parents and say, “Okay, just let us examine it periodically, but you’re financially responsible for whatever defects and disease it develops over the course of its natural life; good luck”?

Yeah, I think you’d see a vast decrease in homosexuals if it were the parent’s choice to turn off a found “gay” gene. It’s crazy to think about the implications of designer children, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a reality in the next few decades.

Fortunately, I don’t think gayness is one to one with genes, it’s more of a mix. Still, if they do find genes that contribute to the likelihood of a child being gay or not, I’m certain some people will choose tilt the scales away from having a gay kid.
I’m OK with that, even as a gay person. I still think that for many people, even if such genes were found to tilt the scales there, they would choose to leave that up to a lottery.
The tweaks I think will be more universally desired though are what I listed above. More intelligence, better looks, healthier and more disease resistant, greater longevity… and the gene to prevent male pattern baldness.
I know I’m a bit out there on this but… I actually all of this incredibly exciting and positive. The idea that we will be able to more directly direct out own traits and evolution is an amazing capability of human civilization in my eyes. Which for the record, I’d prefer to behave more like an eagles and less like Mr Magoo.

Whenever I hear or read the phrase, "It’s just an engineering problem in an area not clearly established as a mature engineering discipline (e.g. civil/structural engineering, chemical/process engineering, automotive engineering, et cetera) I know that the speaker or writer is insufficiently well versed in the technical difficulties of the problem in question.

Human DNA has over 200 million nucleotide base pairs, many of which were formerly assumed to be nonfunctional in a genetic sense but have been found to govern many other aspects of gene expression. Most phenotypical traits are actually polygenetic (relying on combinations of varios genes) and influenced by epigentic factors, so creating a “perfect specimen” of a child is not as simple as picking individual genes off of a Chinese menu, and in fact while we’ve linked certain codon sequences to specific traits, the linkage is often more circumstantial or conditional than discrete. The most direct linkages are to defect conditions within the genome, typically the result of an undesired mutation which is carried though or damage to the gamete before or during meiosis.

It is of course desireable to identify and correct known defects in the zygote before further development (although it is unclear what the so-called “pro-life” crowd would think of the tampering with their divinely prescribed genome) but the potential for abuse, both in the form of exotic “designer babies” designed at the pleasure of their parents to achieve certain life goals, and of the Huxley prophicized lower grade genetically-defined slave castes specifically engineered to be servants. The transhumanist will praise the raising of potential rather than leaving intellectual genius and physical prowess to quasi-random chance, while the traditionalist will bemoan the loss of genuinely random creativity which sometimes creates defects and sociopathic monsters but also produces enlightened geniuses. Both are correct in their fears and prognostications, and barring a collapse of civilization, either can do anything about it. The potential of genetic engineering, not just on humans but on everything around us has the potential to transform human civilization more dramatically than the combustion engine, electricity, and public hygiene. The only thing that would even approach the scale of impact would be the ability to finely manipulate intranuclear forces or control macroscopic objects on a quantum level.

But this isn’t going to come in ten years, or twenty. We’ve made amazing strides in the ability to read and now manipulate genes in a somewhat economical fashion, but we are still quite far from really understanding the effects of every critical section of the genome on a systems level or be able to reliably predict the impact of even simple changes without empirical experimentation. Synthetic biology is in pure infancy, with scientists able to build very simple and not-very-functional proteins from scratch only a few years ago. Our ability to model protein interactions themselves still pushes the boundaries of computational science and likely will for the foreseeable future.


To clarify, when I write “it’s just an engineering problem…” I’m not commenting on the complexity of the problem but that the bounds and physics are understood well enough to believe a solution exists. It’s a solvable puzzle rather than a question mark. Landing a man on the moon was an engineering problem. Curing cancer is an engineering problem. Determining the origin of life is not. Determining if telekinesis is possible is not.