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How do you like to make babies?

  • Hair: dark brown.
  • Eyes: green as emeralds.
  • Pretty big smile, with perfect teeth.
  • Height: pretty tall.

No, this isn’t a date profile: it could be a genetically altered person, chosen by his parents.

Recently in the online world there has circulated a piece of story about genetically modified babies, and whether is possible to make babies like in the movies and books of ScyFy lovers: in the labs.

What is this "genetically modified" thing anyway?

Genetically modified organisms are those with their genome (the genetic sequence of their DNA) modified through the use of biomolecular techniques, commonly known as genetic engineering. Some of the conquers of this somewhat new technology is the modified foods and grains now worldwide available - like genetically altered soy, milk, sheep, and so on. But recently we came across a new unfolding of the possibilities of altering and manipulating the genome of species: genetically modified babies (of humans, of course!). This implies a new boundary that some scientists (and many not so scientific people) are worried to pass by, for many reasons.

Why would anyone do it?

The big question that rises to mind when thinking about new techniques and technologies is often this: why? For the very same reason we walk in cars when we could be walking by foot: because we can. This is a primal and somewhat irreflected thought, but true nevertheless… For the advance of science: some state that by learning to alter and manipulate safely the human DNA we could in the future build a whole new branch of medication therapy, and could change the way we deal with some of the incurable diseases we live with in today's medicine. To make the parents and the society happier: a child with a chosen height, color of skin, color of the eyes, with no genetically predisposition to any disease. Some might say this would be a great deal to society. Others state that with this kind of manipulation we could interfere so deeply with the natural selection described by the Darwinism that we could put danger the future of humans as species. In the end it doesn't really matter why would anyone genetically alter babies. The fact that we can do it and some of us are accepting the risks (more on this later), brings us to the next question:

How can someone change human DNA?

There are many treaties and thesis and different techniques to manipulate the genome of any species, so here I will try to give you an idea of how it's done so that we can think about the other points involved in changing human DNA. To start the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is a long chain of four different basic biochemical bases: adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C), and thymine (T), involved by proteins called histones. They succeed randomly one after the other forming long strings that combine with similar strings with different bases - Adenine combines with Thymine, and Cytosine combines with Guanine, forming a compound of two long strings of randomly succeeding bases. All of this is stored in the cellular nucleus and used (through two processes called transduction and translation) when the cell needs to know how to produce some protein or organelle (which is pretty much all the time) - so the DNA of almost every cell in the human body contains the information required to build another whole human… isn't that amazing? With the growing knowledge we have acquired in manipulating DNA, the genetic engineering is now capable of changing the written code, insert or delete parts of it, and adjusting the way the DNA is read by the cell. In theory all our problems are solved. In reality, however, this is very difficult to do, and the results are - in most cases - not completely predictable. Imagine billions upon billions of different random sequences of only four bases. Now, one of the most challenging parts of the process is to find where to change. Many studies are still required to pinpoint the exact place of the DNA responsible by doing specific alterations in the observed organism. When it comes to height, for instance, there are at least 50 described genes, but when tested, they only could change 2-3% of height, for instance. This is a rapidly growing field of study, but what we already know is still very little about the real functioning of DNA.

When not to modify?

It is hard to wonder why not to change DNA when it comes to save lives (for me, that is). But what will be the boundaries and limitations? The present studies are insufficient to determine, not only where to exactly modify, but when this modification of the genes is affecting the surrounding DNA and stopping it's proper function. There is evidence that sometimes perfectly functioning genes, when inserted in DNA of other individual of the same species results in glaring malfunction of the genetic chain of information (this is believed to be due to “allelic interaction” or “paramutation”, which are changes in the way the DNA functions and is read by the organism, not in the DNA itself). Until this and the many more questions are solved, there is no intrinsic benefit to expose the unborn baby to the increased risks of the procedure.

The natural rise of controversy in face of new technology

As with any new technology, there are questions that arise other than technical and how-to-do's, there are ethical and philosophical considerations to be made.

Is it right to do it?

This is a very tricky question, and there is no right answer right now to it. But the real important questions are: if we try, will this impose risks that didn't exist otherwise? What we may gain is enough to justify this risk? If it fails, will it affect the parents-son relation? If the child is given a particular gift, such as mathematical aptitude, what happens if he/she hates math?

Is it safe to do it?

This is pretty easy to answer for all the reasons given above. NO it’s not safe to change human DNA to alter traits right now.

Is this the best action to take?

If we agree that changing the course of incurable diseases is a desirable achievement, we must then ask: are there other courses of action to take to achieve those same results? We could try to treat the diseases, and control the intrinsic malfunction of cells by changing the physiology/pharmacology and microenvironment of the cells. There are risks involved in trying to do this, as well as limitations. Also, this is the way that traditional medical therapeutics are being implemented.

What about the real things happening right now?

There’s been out a news story that brought back to resurface the curiosity on the subject: researchers from New Jersey reported that 30 human babies are alive after genetic alteration. Whilst this is technically true, it’s not in the way we are discussing it here. The scientist changed a cytoplasmic organelle known as mitochondria, responsible for using the oxygen that comes to the cells and converting it into usable cellular energy. The thing is that the mitochondria carry DNA, so, by replacing the diseased ones with the ones functioning properly (from another donor), technically there are 3 kinds of DNA on the babies – so they are “genetically altered”. Very, very far from choosing human traits, right?

There are experiments – mainly with animals – of genetic alterations, and this is subject for another extensive article, but what I’ve found is that there are ways to activate/inactivate genes in mice, and also that the regulation of the genes is still poorly controllable.

So, there is still no ScyFy fan that can take his wife to the labs and make a baby the way the writers dreamed of… meanwhile, we will still make babies the old fashion way.

To wrap it up:

  • Genetic alteration is changing the DNA of an organism – whether in structure or function.
  • It may become possible to genetically change babies in its traits, such as height or ability to math.
  • Changes to human DNA in babies could bring new medical interventions – still just dreamed of.
  • Changes in DNA are made by replacing sequences of nucleic bases of the giant double string that composes the DNA.
  • Until determination of proper function and risk assessment of the techniques to the babies and the mothers, there is no benefit that justifies the technique.
  • There are many non-technical questions also to be answered regarding the new technology, and it’s impacts on society and nature.
  • On the world there are some reports and experiments (mainly in mice), and the results – although promising – are still very far from scientific fantasy.

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