Designer babies: Can we edit our genome?

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Posted By : ScienceIndia Administrator

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Designer wear is a word that’s quite in use these days and you know that these clothes are designed by some renowned fashion designers. Have you ever come across the term ‘Designer babies’? If not, you will in the near future. So, let’s understand what this term means and what do we exactly mean by designing babies? Are they designed to look good? If so, is it ethically right?

So, let's first understand what is DNA?

Have you ever wondered, what is the reason behind we resembling more like our parents rather than anyone else around? It is because our DNA is more similar to our parents. What do we mean by DNA similarity? Just like English is written using 26 alphabets, our DNA, is a polymer that is made up of four types of nucleotides i.e, A (Adenine), T (Thymine), G (Guanine), C (Cytosine) (which are analogous to letters of the English alphabet). The total length of this polymer in humans is 3*109 nucleotides, which acts like a barcode and is not similar between any two individuals on earth. The sequence of these ATGCs in our DNA is more similar to our parents rather than to anyone else.

Babies whose DNA sequence has been modified/designed are designer babies. Why should it be modified in the first place? Is it to get desirable characteristics such as blue eyes, golden hair, fairer complexion? Or do scientists have something more important in mind? In fact, the priority is to get rid of any disease-causing mistakes (mutations) in the DNA that could be passed on from either parent.

So, the immediate question that pops up is, can we cure all the diseases?

The answer is more complex than yes or no. Only diseases that are totally genetic in nature, where the disease is caused due to a single mistake (mutation) or few mistakes in the DNA sequence eg: β-thalassemia, cystic fibrosis, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, can be cured. Diseases like type 2 diabetes and cancer that are not completely genetic cannot be cured, since many factors are involved in the manifestation of these diseases, such as environment, lifestyle, etc. Similarly, characteristics like intelligence, muscle power, which are determined due to combined effect of multiple genes as well as the environment, cannot be directly enhanced, although eye colour, which is defined by just a single gene can be altered.

How to design a designer baby?

There are multiple ways of doing this, all of which involve using gene-editing techniques, the most robust and recent being CRISPR. CRISPR(Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is actually a form of immunity developed by bacteria to protect itself from invading viruses. It does this by taking DNA from invading viruses and storing a copy in its own DNA. This stored DNA acts like a memory to identify subsequent infections by an identical virus and eventually kill them. Scientists have modified the same system to make it capable of cutting human DNA at sites of mutations and subsequently changing them.

Is CRISPR very accurate?

No, There are chances of off-target mutations i.e., along with the desired modifications there is a chance of undesired modifications. So, CRISPR needs to be further developed to decrease the off-target effects to zero for use in clinical conditions but is still a boon for basic research.

Is designing babies ethically correct?

Again the answer to this question is both yes and no. Designing babies, to get rid of diseases that can be cured, is progressive, but there is a chance of misuse of this technology by making false promises of curing diseases that are incurable. Moreover, with this technology, we are essentially taking evolution into our own hands; extreme care has to be taken to prevent unintentional and irreparable damage to the future of the kids and the society as a whole. So, strict laws have to be enforced and prior permissions for every editing have to be made compulsory to curb false promises. Permissions for gene editing to enhance characters such as eye color, hair color etc. should be totally prohibited as it may widen the economic disparity already present between the rich and poor by giving an undue advantage to the designed baby.


Article by:

K. Phanindhar

Senior Research Fellow (PhD)

CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology

Hyderabad – 500007



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