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Thursday, 6 January, 2000, 10:58 GMT
Designing babies: The future of genetics
The power to change the shape and destiny of the human species - to design babies to order - will be within the grasp of genetic scientists in just a couple of decades, the BBC's science programme Horizon predicts.
The programme outlines how science, and the ethical laws constraining it, already permit human embryos to be scanned for a variety of recognised genetic disorders. This can then prevent seriously ill children being born into often short and painful lives.
In vitro fertilisation advances, for example, mean that where families have a history of genetic disorders, an individual cell can be taken from their embryos developed in a laboratory.
That cell's genetic material can be tested to see if it is disease-free before the embryo is implanted in the mother's uterus.
Techniques like these mean that parents of children with crippling terminal illnesses can rule out the possibility of having another child with the same condition.
But in the Brave New World predicted by Horizon, scientists will do more than screen for disease-free embryos. They will be able to add characteristics to a newly-fertilised embryo, eliminate 'undesirable' characteristics - or both.
Genetic engineering is already being carried out successfully on non-human animals. The gene which makes jellyfish fluoresce has been inserted into mice embryos, resulting in glow-in-the-dark rodents.
Other mice have had their muscle mass increased, or been made to be more faithful to their partners, through the insertion of a gene into their normal genetic make-up.
But this method of genetic engineering is inefficient - in order to produce one fluorescent mouse, for example, several go wrong and are born deformed.
If human babies are ever to be engineered, the process would have to become far more efficient as no technique which involves the birth of several severely defective human beings to create one 'super being' is ever likely to get the go-ahead.
Cloning may well provide an answer to the problems presented by the inefficiency of injecting genes into embryos, say the scientists interviewed by Horizon.
Polly's genes will go on
Dolly the sheep made scientific history when she was created from the cells from other sheep in a Scottish lab in 1997.
But it was her successor Polly who ushered in a whole new phase in genetic engineering. Polly, too, was a clone, created from Dolly's cells.
But in making Polly, scientists injected a new gene into her DNA to enhance milk production. Crucially, Polly will be able to pass the gene on to all her offspring, and they to theirs.
In just four years' time, adds Horizon, the Human Genome Project will have unravelled the locations and identities of every single component of the genome - probably about three billion genes in total.
The completion of the project will help lead to the identification of genes responsible for character traits such as predisposition to happiness and intelligence - as well as physical characteristics such as hair and eye colour.
Even though we may not know for some time what each gene does, let alone how it does it, the development of what are being called DNA-chips will help to identify which genes are associated with which traits.
For those who can afford it
In order to find the genes linked to hyper intelligence, it will be possible, for example, to compare the DNA map of a genius, with that of a person of normal IQ.
Any genes unique to the genius could then be flagged up as those possibly responsible for that person's high intelligence.
Parents who can afford it will at some point in the future be offered the power to choose the physical, psychological and intellectual attributes of their offspring, predict geneticists interviewed by Horizon.
Parents will be able to reject their own genetic heritage, and instead plump for beautiful, clever or sporty genes to be implanted into their embryonic children.
As one geneticist puts it, if parents are willing to pay $100,000 a year to put their children through Princetown University, there will probably be parents willing to pay $20,000 to ensure that their children have the optimum predisposition to intelligence.
But gene manipulation is not without its drawbacks - or its dubious echoes of eugenics and death camps - says the programme.
The potential problems posed in designing a super-human are myriad. For a start, the technology would have to be tested on animals, probably chimpanzees, whose genetic make-up is almost identical to our own.
And if the tests were carried out on, for example, intelligence genes, they stand a real possibility in resulting in chimpanzees with a greater intellectual capacity than human beings.
And scientists admit they only have a limited understanding of what each gene does. Horizon looks at an experiment carried out on pigs to make them bigger and leaner, which involved the introduction of a gene which encouraged the production of human growth hormone.
But the uncontrolled hormone crippled the pigs, gave them stomach ulcers and caused their internal organs to fail.
Identical twins - with identical genes - often have very different personalities.
And what if those who could afford to did all have disease-free super children? The genetic disorders could bottom out at the base of the social pyramid.
Phil Bereano, of the USA's Council for Responsible Genetics, told Horizon: "We should read some more Greek tragedies. They show us that humans can't always predict what the future is going to be, and that our arrogance and pride often lead to disasters."
Designer Babies will be screened at 2000GMT on 5 January 2000 on BBC2
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