March 19, 2015
Scientists Call For Wait On Human Germ Line Genetic Alterations

Some scientists want a moratorium on using the Crispr-Cas9 genetic editing technique to modify germ line DNA. The germ line is the DNA that gets passed from parents to offspring. Basically, they are arguing against offspring genetic engineering until the safety of the technique can be assured.

A team of scientists at UCSD has just announced an improvement on Crispr-Cas9 for editing chromosomes to alter the germ line DNA. Their technique alters both chromosomes and can convert chromosomes that are heterogeneous (differing between the a pair of chromosomes) to make them homozygous for the new desired sequence. Got a better sequence you want to give to offspring? They'll get two copies of the sequence with this new technique.

I think there is a substantial chance that many Western governments will ban or greatly restrict offspring genetic engineering for a long time, not just until the tech for it becomes highly reliable and precise. If that happens the nations that ban this technology for germ line alteration will fall far behind nations that embrace this practice.

The nations that embrace the practice will evolve at a much faster rate. Imagine, for example, Singapore and Taiwan both embrace germ line genetic engineering. Within two generations their populaces will have 20+ IQ points advantages over the Western nations that prevent the use of this biotechnology. Some countries could engage a sort of genetic arms race to make far more productive populaces while other countries become very uncompetitive in just about all industries.

My expectation is that upper classes especially will flee any nations that won't let the upper classes create super kids. Citizenship in a Western industrial nation will be seen (correctly!) as less valuable than making your baby have a 140+ IQ.

This isn't just about high intelligence. Short people will want to make their kids taller.. At the same time, really tall people might opt to make their kids not quite so tall. A tall woman especially has fewer mate choices.

People with genetic risk factors for assorted medical problems will seek to avoid passing along those genes to their children. Somewhere between hundreds and thousands of genetic variants in each person are known as genetic load and have deleterious effects on health, longevity, and both mental and physical energy levels.

I expect we will see genetic editing done to create cells to grow replacement organs. Got a liver whose genetic programming is less than ideal? Take some of your cells, genetically edit them to create a higher functioning liver, then grow a replacement liver in a vat. When the liver gets installed it will be a genetic software upgrade. Or got a stomach that is easily upset? Get a genetic software update via either a new replacement stomach or via stem cells implanted in the stomach.

The biggest thing holding back germ line genetic engineering is lack of knowledge about the effects of the vast majority of genetic variants. Once we know the health and performance impacts of hundreds of thousands of genetic variants the advantage of editing the germ line will be enormous.

Update: See this interview of Harvard researcher George Church on genetic sequencing and germline genetic engineering:

Church: I donít think that germline is the next goal (nor next logical step), but it might be an acceptable side-effect of treating genetic diseases early, safely and effectively. Many gene therapies currently in clinical trials are already aimed at young children to avoid permanent damage. Treating sperm and eggs could reduce the number of abortions (spontaneous and induced) and the number embryos needed in IVF clinics.

We will see germline genetic engineering on other species first. An obvious candidate: Canis lupus familiaris, what we call "dog". Lots of dog breeds have lots of genetic problems due to foolish breeding practices. Lots of such problems come to mind: German Shepherds with hip dysplasia and keratitis in the eye; Jack Russell Terriers with glaucoma; and Dalmatians with deafness and kidney or bladder stones. All these breeds and other breeds could get genetically repaired and made into super dogs.

Germline genetic editing of livestock will be used to create super milk cows, super egg-laying hens, and other animals that increase the efficiency of livestock farming. Of course, genetic editing of crops will be done as well to increase yields and improve quality. All this genetic editing of germ lines for commercial reasons will help make the technology more mature. In 20 years time (if not sooner) I expect germ line genetic editing will be done on humans. By that time we'll know the impacts of each genetic variant on human performance, health, and longevity. Offspring will get hundreds if not thousands of genetic improvements over the genes that their parents contributed.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2015 March 19 07:50 PM 

Brett Bellmore said at March 20, 2015 3:38 AM:

I think, even in the face of laws, people will start using these technologies. Perhaps they'll go abroad to use them.

And then, what will a government that bans human germline genetic engineering do, when you come home with a pregnant wife, from a vacation in a country which permits it? Force an abortion? Mandate that the offspring be sterilized? There really aren't any practical options.

So, western governments might ban the practice, but I don't see how the ban can be effective. Not so long as the process itself is more expensive than international travel. Might reduce it's market penetration as it get's cheaper.

And the elites might not even mind that. Gives their own children more of an advantage over the peons.

H. M. Stuart said at March 20, 2015 9:30 AM:


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JP Straley said at March 21, 2015 7:33 AM:

It's a portable technology. There will be quite a number of couples that might enjoy a cruise ship vacation, with the added benefit of a Crispy Critter laboratory on board.

JP Straley

Tj Green said at March 21, 2015 4:10 PM:

We have the ability to correct all the damaging errors evolution has created and we hesitate. Why?

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