11/23/2015 05:33 am ET Updated Nov 24, 2015

This Technology Can Fight Cancer And Create Adorable Mini Pigs. So Why Are Scientists So Worried?

We could be closer than you think to engineering designer babies.

As any number of magazine articles and news stories from recent months have noted, we are in the midst of a major genetic revolution. Thanks to a gene-editing technique called Crispr-Cas9, it is now not only possible, but easy, cheap and fast, to change, delete or replace genes in any plant or animal, including people.

Scientists around the world have already used Crispr on a wide range of projects, from developing a kind of wheat that is invulnerable to mildew to stopping cancer cells from multiplying. This week, Scientific American shone a spotlight on China’s “bold push” into the world of genetically customized animals -- and the mounting ethical quandaries that follow.

Using Crispr, scientists in China have created beagles with double the amount of muscle mass -- the world’s first gene-edited dogs -- as well as a new kind of goat, with bigger muscles and longer hair, among other Crispr-altered mammals. The work seems likely to rapidly expand. Minhua Hu, a geneticist at the Guangzhou General Pharmaceutical Research Institute and one of the beagle researchers, told Scientific American that genetically modifying animals is a priority area for the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Another geneticist noted that the Chinese government has allocated “a lot of financial support” for such efforts.

Humans have manipulated the genetic makeup of plants and animals for thousands of years. The beagle is already a product of human genetic manipulation. So are golden retrievers, cats, cows, the salad that you ate for lunch, and every other domesticated animal and plant. But Crispr is far more precise and efficient than any previous technique. As Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at New York University School of Medicine, put it, “We used to have a butter knife, now we’ve got a scalpel.”

The ease and precision of Crispr is partly what fuels the ethical questions that accompany the technology. “Now it’s something that someone with a BS and a couple thousand dollars’ worth of equipment can do. What was impractical is now almost everyday. That’s a big deal,” Hank Greely, a bioethicist at Stanford University, told Wired.

Unlike earlier attempts at gene therapy, changes made with Crispr trickle down to future generations, potentially altering an entire species’ fate. This can have a cascading effect. For example, some researchers are trying to develop a mosquito that is both resistant to malaria and produces fewer eggs, a change that could cause the insects to become extinct. But if there are no more mosquitoes, what will happen to the bats that feed on them?

When Caplan first read a paper on Crispr two years ago, he was blown away by the possibilities. “As soon as I finished reading it, I thought, ‘Holy crap we’re going to have full employment for bioethicists.’”

Of the many ethical questions raised by the technology, one in particular stands out: When will we start using Crispr to make better babies?

China has made headlines in this arena as well. Last April, a group at Sun Yat-sen University published a paper announcing that they had used Crispr to edit human embryos to delete a gene linked to a blood disorder. The embryos were obtained from a fertility clinic, and couldn’t be carried to term. The experiment did not succeed, and, in part, showed how far away we are from using Crispr to create a so-called designer baby.

But Caplan predicts that once the science is firmly established, it will happen. “Everyone’s out talking about fixing diseases or making lab animals to fix diseases, but if you look at how interested people are in getting their kid into the right nursery school so they can get them into Harvard Business School -- they’re going to be interested in how they can engineer their kid to be more successful,” he said. “Not next year, but boy that’s going to come quickly.”

Tailor-made pets will come first. Although China’s Crispr work on mammals has so far had mostly practical aims -- for example, boosting goatherd incomes by increasing how much meat and wool each animal produces -- one Chinese institute is planning to sell gene-edited tiny pigs as pets.

More examples are likely to follow, both in China and around the world. Want a unicorn? How about a chicken that is “de-evolved” to look more like a dinosaur? Scientists say it could happen. It’s easy to envision the dystopian possibilities. What’s to stop someone from creating the world’s most dangerous attack dog?

“I’m going to say, nothing,” Caplan said. As Caplan outlined in a paper recently, published in Embo Reports, there are almost no regulations of any kind in place to shape the way that scientists use Crispr on animals.

Next month, however, that could begin to change. On Dec. 1, the National Academy of Sciences will host a three-day international conference to discuss the scientific, ethical and political issues raised by human gene-editing with Crispr. And on Dec. 7 and 8, the Institute for Laboratory Animal Research will host a conference on the ethics raised by using Crispr on animals. (Caplan is leading sessions on ethical and regulatory issues at the conference.)

But Caplan isn’t betting that the international community will regulate the industry anytime soon. “It’ll take some disaster to do it,” he said. “Otherwise the tendency is to say ‘Oh well, we’ll see where it goes.’”

Lila Shapiro covers the science fiction of science, the imaginative ways scientists are trying to solve the world’s hardest problems. Tips? Email