China’s Gene-Edited Babies: One Step Closer to ‘Flying Pigs’

Quantum Physicist Radha Pyari Sandhir explains CRISPR technology, & why genetic engineering shouldn’t be misused.

5 min read
China’s Gene-Edited Babies: One Step Closer to ‘Flying Pigs’

Picture this. You’re standing in a long queue, waiting to place an order. When you reach the counter, you say, “I’d like a pair of wings, please.” No, you aren’t at KFC, you are in the near future, at your local genome editing station, holding a pig.

Because who hasn’t been promised something “when pigs fly”?

The time to cash in on those promises may come sooner than you think, thanks to something called CRISPR, the newest kid on the genetic engineering block.

Only a couple of months ago, a scientist in China claimed that the first CRISPR edited babies had been born in the form of healthy twin baby girls. That the twins are CRISPR babies, was confirmed to be true on 21 January 2019.

Too busy to read? Listen to this instead.


New Face of Genetic Engineering: CRISPR

Genetic engineering has been around for decades, but has thus far been fairly expensive and cumbersome, and therefore, mostly the stuff of focused biotech groups in white lab coats behind closed doors, hyped up on caffeine.

However, CRISPR (clustered regularly inter-spaced short palindromic repeats), radically changes the face of genetic engineering because of how relatively easy, precise, and inexpensive it is. So inexpensive that DIY CRISPR kits can be used by enthusiasts at home!

It has led scientists in China to create customised dogs, namely, super muscular beagles. This is achieved by deleting a gene called myostatin. They say the edits are for aiding hunting and police work, but I personally think they want to use these dogs to crush enemies with cuteness. I mean look at these faces. Look at them!

These were the two 15-month-old beagles whose genes were successfully edited. Hercules is on the left, and Tiangou is on the right.
(Photo Courtesy: Business Insider  Australia)

I digress.

What CRISPR Technology Is All About

What makes CRISPR such a precise and ‘affordable’ tool? It is a system that already exists in bacteria, and works as a natural gene editor. One of the leading figures in the development of the CRISPR technology, Professor Jennifer Doudna of Berkeley, likens CRISPR to cutting and pasting in a word processor.

If you think of DNA as the letters, you can Control+C-Control-V your way to a new set of words, with complete control over where you place them.

Take sickle cell anemia for example, a disease of the blood that limits the number of healthy red blood cells carrying oxygen to different parts of the body. In principle, you can take stem cells that give rise to blood cells, ‘cut out’ the mutations that cause this inherited disease, and inject patients with corrected cells. In previously used genome editing methods, the mutations are hard to target precisely.

I’m sure you’d agree that developing cures for diseases through genetic engineering is an incredibly positive, badass application of the CRISPR technology. But before we get overexcited and urge scientists to work faster, there are some very important questions to think about.

Genetic Engineering & Questions of Ethics

You see, there are two types of genetic engineering. One that targets somatic cells, which are all cells other than those used for reproduction. Any type of genome editing done on somatic cells would die with the patient, that is, the edits would not be passed on to the offspring.

The second type is germline editing, which involves eggs, sperm, and embryos. Essentially, the edits are passed on to the next generation, which raises a number of ethical questions. Who determines what qualifies as a genetic disorder that needs to be fixed?

Is deafness a disorder that should be eliminated? What about dwarfism? Rebecca Cokley, a disability rights activist, when asked about genetic engineering in the Designer DNA episode of Netflix’s Explained, says, “The idea that we're all sick, that we're suffering, that I suffer from dwarfism? No, I've lived with dwarfism. I've lived with dwarfism for thirty-nine years. I'm proud to be a second generation raising a third generation of people living with dwarfism. I don't suffer. I suffer from how society treats me.”

Eugenics Propaganda: The Conversation Govts Should Be Having

Even contemplating which genetic alterations should be made can take us down a very dangerous, dark rabbit hole. There’s an extremely fuzzy line between eradicating a hereditary susceptibility to cancer and deciding that having brown eyes is a defect that needs to be fixed. I’m looking at you, eugenics.

A eugenics propaganda poster.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

It is, therefore, extra important for governments to pause and take a deep, informed breath on this eve of a genetic revolution, to come up with ethical regulations. Unfortunately, as we know, not all countries see eye to eye when it comes to regulations on technology. Only a handful of countries, such as Germany, have laws against germline editing. Others only have restrictions.

Japan is currently working on an ethical rule book, and the US doesn’t allow implantation of edited embryos, but allows experimentation with germline editing.

Additionally, countries like India and China have guidelines, but those guidelines may not be very strictly enforced. Chinese scientist Dr He Jiankui’s recent ‘CRISPR babies’ claim sparked an ethical uproar among scientists across the globe, along with an investigation by Chinese authorities. He had genetically altered embryos to be resistant to the HIV infection that their fathers carried, and then implanted them. One implantation led to the birth of twin girls. Dr Jiankui likely faces criminal charges – much depends on the response of Chinese authorities.

A dangerous line has been crossed, and the next steps are critical – we must tread carefully. Otherwise, we are heading down the road to ‘designer babies’.

A cartoon about made-to-order babies.
(Photo Courtesy: Marc A. Thiessen / The Berkshire Eagle)

Potential Unforeseen Ecological Repercussions

There are other points to ponder. Tinkering with the germline can lead to unforeseen repercussions. Ecosystems are fragile, and a presumably tiny change could have drastic effects. Kevin Esvelt, Director of the Sculpting Evolution group at the MIT Media Lab (that’s exploring a potential long-term solution for Lyme disease via genetically engineered mice), says, “I worry every day that I might be missing something profound about the consequences of what we’re developing.”

Which brings me back to you standing in line ordering wings for your pig.

What if flying pigs gain a pompous Orwellian self-awareness, and decide to monopolise our skies, preventing birds from migrating and rendering air traffic impossible? It’d be a terribly unforeseen repercussion. Perhaps we should create pigs that fly… when pigs fly.

(Radha recently submitted a PhD thesis in theoretical quantum physics in India. As a creative outlet, she runs a small design studio called Sploosh Design (SplooshDesign.Com), a blog called Fantasy Science (Fantasy-Science.Com), and consults on sci-fi screenplays /books. In her free time, she irritates her three cats. Bug her on Twitter: @RadhaPyari. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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