Monday, 16th October —
By Screen Shot editorial
Twenty years have passed since the sci-fi movie GATTACA (1997) was released. The film is about a dystopian future society where children are conceived through genetic manipulation to ensure they inherit the best traits of their parents. In the movie’s plot, genetic discrimination dictates people’s lives: only the citizens with a winning lab-upgraded DNA can eventually succeed in life. While the practice of upgrading and modifying genes is widely performed on crops and animals, GATTACA’s speculation about human embryo modification has since remained in the realm of science fiction. Until last summer.
The biopunk narrative of GATTACA has in fact never been so current. Just four months ago, a team of researchers in Oregon attempted to create a genetically modified human embryo using CRISPR gene-editing techniques. Despite the shocking revelation, this was not the first attempt of this kind. Chinese scientists have performed this controversial practice three times before, publishing several reports on the experiments.
Bioconservatives and bioethicists alike have throughout the years raised concerns on the possible consequences of human genome editing, particularly worried that it could lead to what’s known as ‘designer babies’. That gene-editing techniques could be used for commercial and aesthetic purposes is a concern worth keeping in mind. But it’s also important to keep in mind that these experiments are usually undertaken to correct genes that cause blood disorders and inherited diseases.
CRISPR techniques used on human embryos are still at experimental stages, as the recent tests have caused off-target effects, and it will take some time before this controversial practice will be safe and officialized. With people lavishly investing in IVF (in vitro fertilization) to get the best services – which understandably includes quality checks of eggs and donors – there can be little doubt that if there was the possibility to make sure our offsprings will be disease-free, but also incredibly smart and good looking, that many people would go for it.
Successfully editing the DNA of embryos would be a paramount success for both science and human development. But it does come with some reasonable concerns. The experiments performed by both Chinese and American scientists have proven that there’s still some way to go before gene editing would become a successful practice, but it’s safe to say that the experiments will continue. It’s early to speculate on the ways in which such technology will be used, but watching GATTACA can be a good way to start thinking about the issue.