DESIGNER shoes, bags,wrist watches, clothes, perfumes etc, and now what? The world is really on the fast lane. Researchers are now making it possible for couples to go for made-to-order designer babies, thanks to rapid advances in the knowledge of the genetic blueprint for human beings (human genome), the Holy Grail of genetics research.
The mapping of the genome was finished in 2003, and scientists went on to discover how each gene functions and what it does.
Today, it is possible to manipulate the genes of embryos.
Experts have described a designer baby as â€œan infant created by genetic engineering combined with in-vitro fertilization in order to ensure the absence or presence of a particular gene or characteristic.â€
In other words, couples could preselect their babiesâ€™ physical and personality traits. Itâ€™s like going to your doctor with a shopping list detailing the traits you would want in your baby. You could ask for a tall, intelligent, fair skinned, dark-haired baby boy that will love music, the sciences and arts, with 0.1 per cent chance of coming down with arthritis, diabetes, and any form of cancer.
A recent report in bloomberg.com noted that â€œa new technology aimed at eliminating genetic disease in newborns would combine the DNA of three people, instead of just two, to create a child, potentially redrawing ethical lines for designer babies.â€
How it works: â€œThe process works by replacing potentially variant DNA in the unfertilized eggs of a hopeful mother with disease-free genes from a donor,â€ said bloomberg.net. The procedure is used only in monkeys for now but they are working to see if it is safe enough to be tested in humans.
The argument about whether the procedure is ethical or not, intensified recently when a blind couple in the US listed blindness as one of the characteristics they want to see in their designer baby.
Advantages: This technology, according to experts, could be used to eliminate genetic diseases in newborns. â€œThere are two types of DNA: nuclear, which is handed down by both parents, and mitochondrial, which only comes from the mother. The technology replaces a donorâ€™s nuclear DNA, which determines things like hair color and intelligence, with the same material from the prospective mother, leaving the healthy mitochondria from the donor in place.
â€œPotentially, the procedure may cut off mitochondrial diseases that are passed down through females. One example is Melas syndrome, which causes a person to have continuing small strokes that damage their brains, leading to vision loss, problems with movement, dementia and death, according to the National Institutes of Health. â€œThis technology is designed to prevent disease and to offer a woman whoâ€™s a carrier of disease more options,â€ said Vamsi Mootha, a professor of systems biology and medicine at Harvard Medical School, Boston, USA.
Disadvantages: May be unsafe: Scientists have expressed fear over the safety of the procedure. â€œThe research in mice suggests that the replacement technique may destroy some lines of communication between mitochondria and the cellâ€™s transplanted nucleus. Though the macaque monkeys donâ€™t show the same problems, there may be long-term issues from the DNA replacement,â€ wrote Klaus Reinhardt, evolutionary biologist at the University of Tuebingen, Germany in the September 2013 issue of Science journal.â€
â€œThe genetic engineering itself may not work correctly. Choosing a certain type of gene, say for hair color, may turn off a different gene, say for aging longer. This type of problem may not manifest itself until the baby is born. Furthermore, the parents may not get what they expect.
Hypothetically, they might choose a female embryo with fair skin, dark hair, and a minimal chance of disease, and get a healthy daughter who is fair skinned with dark hair who also has a terribly mean personality. Because â€œpersonality genesâ€ are difficult to interpret and understand (they may not even exist!), the personalities of designer babies cannot be chosen for.
â€œThe parents who wanted the fair and brunette daughter may have accidentally passed up a sweet tempered red haired son,â€ according to designerbabies.weebly.com
Wastage: Ethicists have argued that this technology will lead to wastage of embryos. Many embryos are created in the process and only a few that fit the specifications set by a couple will get implanted into the mother and the rest are thrown away.
Costly: With all the gains of this technology, it is feared that it will be so expensive that only the super rich will be able to afford designer babies. Distorted society: â€œIf designer babies were to become commonplace, individuality as we know it would most likely cease to exist. As a whole, many people would be pretty, healthy, and intelligent. A society of pretty, healthy, and intelligent people may sound reasonable and even favourable, until the full social implications are considered,â€ noted designerbabies.weebly.com.
Prejudice: â€œPeople will encounter prejudice, not for their race, but for their inferior genetic makeup. It creates a new class system made up of genetically designed people and naturally made people. Naturally made people would experience a loss of opportunity based on a chance that their defective genes will be expressed. In this new society, people with a 50 per cent chance of cancer would get passed over for a job in favour of the person with .01% chance of cancer.â€
Favouritism: People have also argued that the technology could lead to favouritism where a gender or certain traits are favoured over the others. For instance, in countries where boys are favoured over girls, they may end up having only boys. The implication is that the human race will become extinct with time.
â€œCreating a generation of genetically modified humans could mess with evolution in unpredictable ways. The premise of evolution is simply this: as environments change, the individuals in a species best suited to the new environment are selected for. Without diversity in the species, adaptation to the new environment is more difficult without a wide range of individuals to choose from,â€ stateddesignerbabies.weebly.com.
The evolution of humans has spanned about 2 million years and has resulted in the types of people we see today: people who have imperfections and people who are very different from one another. A large scale of organisms in a particular species is necessary for that species to continue to be competitive with other species and be successful. By creating a generation of genetically similar people, the human species loses its ability to adapt to changing environments (Agar).