In 1997, Gattaca told us a cautionary tale about the intertwined nature of totalitarianism and genetic discrimination. Not everybody listened. In the years between ’97 and now, eugenics (the study of “improving” the qualities of the human species through manipulation) has made a number of advances. Many of the concepts that were Sci-Fi a decade ago are now fact. Here’s how it’s happening:
Just by looking at an embryo’s DNA, scientists can determine that person’s sex, eye color, and hair color (with skin color coming soon). Even things like your ability to taste bitter food, whether you can hold your liquor, and the consistency of your earwax can be predicted.
After your genetic makeup is detected, the process of selecting who you end up being can begin—or rather, the process of which you ends up being born at all. You may recall from the show Friends that in vitro fertilization involves multiple embryos being implanted at once. Before those embryos get implanted, however, they can undergo something called preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD).
Basically, that means that embryos with undesirable traits can be culled from the herd, ensuring parents a better likelihood of an “ideal” kid. Most often PGD is used for detecting things like cystic fibrosis, sickle cell disease, Tay-Sachs, Huntington’s, and Down syndrome. However, increasing numbers of parents are paying extra to choose the sex of their child too.
In fact, the ancestry-determining website 23andMe filed a patent (PDF) in September of 2013 that outlines a process by which would-be parents could find a sperm or egg donor with their ideal genetic makeup. Basically, this would take existing PGD programs a step further, allowing parents to pick their favorite “genetic package” from a selection of embryos:
What PGD doesn’t do is genetically alter individual embryos in order to make them “perfect.” That’s the job of researchers like Junjiu Huang, who earlier this year reported that he had conducted “genome editing” experiments on human embryos. The experiment went pretty poorly. Only a few of the embryos were successfully altered in the intended way, and many resulted in what Huang’s team called “off-target” mutations.
If those results are any indicator, it’ll still be a while before we can order up a hyper-immune superkid like the folks in Gattaca. As for tailoring the outside appearance of your future baby, we’ve already got the technology—but should we use it? Let us know in the comments.