By: Wynne Parry, LiveScience Contributor
Published: 02/18/2013 11:55 AM EST on LiveScience
NEW YORK — The increasing power and accessibility of genetic technology may one day give parents the option of modifying their unborn children, in order to spare offspring from disease or, conceivably, make them tall, well muscled, intelligent or otherwise blessed with desirable traits.
Would this change mean empowering parents to give their children the best start possible? Or would it mean designer babies who could face unforeseen genetic problems? Experts debated on Wednesday evening (Feb. 13) whether prenatal engineering should be banned in the United States.
Humans have already genetically modified animals and crops, said Sheldon Krimsky, a philosopher at Tufts University, who argued in favor of a ban on the same for human babies. "But in the hundreds of thousands of trails that failed, we simply discarded the results of the unwanted crop or animal."
Is this a model that society wants to apply to humans, making pinpoint genetic modifications, only to "discard the results when they don't work out?" Krimsky asked during an Intelligence Squared Debate held in Manhattan. He added that assuming no mistakes will occur would be sheer hubris.
He and fellow ban proponent Lord Robert Winston, a professor of science and society and a fertility expert at Imperial College in London, focused on the uncertainty associated with the genetic underpinnings of traits. The two also addressed the consequences of manipulating genes. [5 Myths About Fertility Treatments]
"Even [for] height, one of the most heritable traits known, scientists have found at least 50 genes that account for only 2 to 3 percent of the variance in the samples," Krimsky said. "If you want a tall child, marry tall."
Mother Nature doesn’t care
Meanwhile, their opponents, who opposed the ban, talked of empowering parents to give their children a healthy life, even if it meant giving their offspring traits they themselves could not pass down.
Lee Silver, a professor of molecular biology and public policy at Princeton University, urged the audience members to look at someone sitting next to them.
"That person and you differ at over 1 million locations in your DNA [deoxyribonucleic acid]. Most [of these variations] don't do anything," Silver said. "[But] even if you are a healthy adult, 100 [of these] can cause deadly childhood disease in your children or grandchildren."
"Mother Nature is a metaphor," he continued. "And it is a bad metaphor, because in reality inheritance is a game of craps … It won't have to be that way in the future."
His fellow ban opponent, Nita Farahany, a professor of law and of genome sciences and policy at Duke University, attacked the idea that uncertainty should prevent the use of the technology, pointing out that reproduction, completely unaided by technology, involves much uncertainty.
"We are not going to ban natural sex," Farahany said.
A significant portion of the debate focused on a particular technology known as mitochondrial transfer. While the majority of DNA resides in a cell's nucleus, a small amount is contained in the cell's energy factories, called mitochondria. This mitochondrial DNA is passed from mother to child. In rare cases, women have mitochondrial defects they can pass down to their children, causing devastating problems or even death.
Mitochondrial transfer can replace such defective mitochondrial DNA with that from a donor, allowing affected mothers to avoid passing these defects on to their children, who then carry genetic material from three parents (the father and two mothers, including the donor).
Opponents of a ban argued it would prevent women with mitochondrial disorders from having healthy children of their own.
"I am not here to defend every type of genetic engineering. I don't think we are ready as a society to embrace it all," Farahany said.
Rather than an outright ban, she and Silver argued for a middle ground, which would allow for certain procedures once they had been shown to be safe and effective. An emerging scientific consensus says mitochondrial transfer would fit into this category, she said.
"We know fiddling with mitochondrial DNA may make a massive difference to what happens to nuclear DNA. … Abnormal children have been born as result of mitochondrial transfer," he said. "I think, in preventing one genetic disease, you are likely to cause another genetic disease." [The 10 Most Mysterious Diseases]
Society should instead focus on the enormous importance of environmental influences in health, Winston said. "What we should be trying to do, rather than risk making abnormal babies, is to improve the environment so the DNA functions in the best possible ways."
Neither Farahany nor Silver argued in favor of allowing parents to modify their children to ensure other traits that are less medically necessary, but nevertheless desirable, such as higher intelligence or blue eyes.
"What I think parents care about most is promoting the health of their children," Silver said.
Leading to eugenics?
Both sides referred to the specter of eugenics, an idea embraced by the Nazis, which holds that selective breeding can be used to improve the human race.
Winston and Krimsky pointed out that genetically modifying children to choose desirable traits evoked this approach. Meanwhile, Farahany noted that some of the worst abuses of government in recent history involved attempts to control reproduction. How would a ban on the genetic modification of children be enforced, she asked, would all babies be forcibly tested?
An audience votedeclared the opponents of the ban the winners.
- The 9 Most Bizarre Medical Conditions
- Wishful Thinking: 6 'Magic Bullet' Cures That Don't Exist
- That's Incredible! 9 Brainy Baby Abilities
Also on HuffPost:
In 2007, South Korean scientists altered a cat’s DNA to make it glow in the dark and then took that DNA and cloned other cats from it — creating a set of fluffy, <a href="http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2007/12/13/4349719-cloned-cats-that-glow" target="_hplink">fluorescent felines</a>. Here’s how they did it: The researchers took skin cells from Turkish Angora female cats and used a virus to insert genetic instructions for making red fluorescent protein. Then they put the gene-altered nuclei into the eggs for cloning, and the cloned embryos were implanted back into the donor cats — making the cats the surrogate mothers for their own clones. What’s the point of creating a pet that doubles as a nightlight? Scientists say the ability to engineer animals with fluorescent proteins will enable them to artificially create animals with human genetic diseases.
The <a href="http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/03/100330-bacon-pigs-enviropig-dead-http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/03/100330-bacon-pigs-enviropig-dead-zones/" target="_hplink">Enviropig</a>, or “Frankenswine,” as critics call it, is a pig that’s been genetically altered to better digest and process phosphorus. Pig manure is high in phytate, a form of phosphorus, so when farmers use the manure as fertilizer, the chemical enters the watershed and causes algae blooms that deplete oxygen in the water and kill marine life. So scientists added an E. Coli bacteria and mouse DNA to a pig embryo. This modification decreases a pig’s phosphorous output by as much as 70 percent — making the pig more environmentally friendly.
Scientists at the University of <a href="http://www.mnn.com/local-reports/washington" target="_hplink">Washington</a> are <a href="http://wa.water.usgs.gov/pubs/fs/fs082-98/" target="_hplink">engineering poplar trees that can clean up contamination sites</a> by absorbing groundwater pollutants through their roots. The plants then break the pollutants down into harmless byproducts that are incorporated into their roots, stems and leaves or released into the air. In laboratory tests, the transgenic plants are able to remove as much as 91 percent of trichloroethylene — the most common groundwater contaminant at U.S. Superfund sites — out of a liquid solution. Regular poplar plants removed just 3 percent of the contaminant.
Scientists have recently taken the gene that programs poison in scorpion tails and combined it with cabbage. Why would they want to create <a href="http://www.nature.com/cr/journal/v12/n2/full/7290120a.html" target="_hplink">venomous cabbage</a>? To limit pesticide use while still preventing caterpillars from damaging cabbage crops. These genetically modified cabbages produce scorpion poison that kills caterpillars when they bite leaves — but the toxin is modified so it isn’t harmful to humans.
Strong, flexible spider silk is one of the most valuable materials in nature, and it could be used to make an array of products — from artificial ligaments to parachute cords — if we could just produce it on a commercial scale. In 2000, Nexia Biotechnologies announced it had the answer: <a href="http://www.physorg.com/news194539934.html" target="_hplink">a goat that produced spiders’ web protein</a> in its milk. Researchers inserted a spiders’ dragline silk gene into the goats’ DNA in such a way that the goats would make the silk protein only in their milk. This “silk milk” could then be used to manufacture a web-like material called Biosteel.
AquaBounty’s genetically modified salmon grows twice as fast as the conventional variety — the photo shows two same-age salmon with the genetically altered one in the rear. The company says the fish has the same flavor, texture, color and odor as a regular salmon; however, the debate continues over whether the fish is safe to eat. <a href="http://www.aquabounty.com/products/products-295.aspx" target="_hplink">Genetically engineered Atlantic salmon</a> has an added growth hormone from a Chinook salmon that allows the fish to produce growth hormone year-round. Scientists were able to keep the hormone active by using a gene from an eel-like fish called an ocean pout, which acts as an “on switch” for the hormone. If the FDA approves the sale of the salmon, it will be the first time the government has allowed modified animals to be marketed for human consumption. According to federal guidelines, the fish would not have to be labeled as genetically modified.
Flavr Savr tomato
The <a href="http://californiaagriculture.ucanr.org/landingpage.cfm?article=ca.v054n04p6&fulltext=yes" target="_hplink">Flavr Savr tomato</a> was the first commercially grown genetically engineered food to be granted a license for human consumption. By adding an antisense gene, the <a href="http://www.mnn.com/local-reports/california" target="_hplink">California</a>-based company Calgene hoped to slow the ripening process of the tomato to prevent softening and rotting, while allowing the tomato to retain its natural flavor and color. The FDA approved the Flavr Savr in 1994; however, the tomatoes were so delicate that they were difficult to transport, and they were off the market by 1997. On top of production and shipping problems, the tomatoes were also reported to have a very bland taste: “The Flavr Savr tomatoes didn’t taste that good because of the variety from which they were developed. There was very little flavor to save,” said Christ Watkins, a horticulture professor at Cornell University.
<a href="http://www.mnn.com/green-tech/research-innovations/photos/12-bizarre-examples-of-genetic-engineering/banana-vaccines" target="_hplink"><strong>CLICK HERE</strong></a> to continue on to <a href="http://www.mnn.com" target="_hplink">Mother Nature Network</a> to see the rest of these bizarre genetically engineered creations, including <a href="http://www.mnn.com/green-tech/research-innovations/photos/12-bizarre-examples-of-genetic-engineering/banana-vaccines" target="_hplink">banana vaccines</a>, <a href="http://www.mnn.com/green-tech/research-innovations/photos/12-bizarre-examples-of-genetic-engineering/less-flatulent-cow" target="_hplink">less-flatulent cows</a>, <a href="http://www.mnn.com/green-tech/research-innovations/photos/12-bizarre-examples-of-genetic-engineering/medicinal-eggs" target="_hplink">medicinal eggs</a> and more!