In November, a Chinese scientist named He Jiankui made an announcement that many in the gene-editing community had been expecting—albeit dreading—for years: He’d secretly edited the genes of embryos that were now living, breathing humans, crossing ethical boundaries to prove that Crispr, the buzzy technology that promises to transform medicine and agriculture, can also easily be applied to us.
The moral dilemma soon dominated headlines: If you edit the human germline—the genetic blueprint carried in sperm, eggs, and embryos—those changes are duplicated in all cells made from those original cells, and passed on through reproduction. That means Crispr may have the power to eradicate diseases such as cystic fibrosis, sickle-cell anemia, hemophilia, and Huntington’s disease, which are all caused by a faulty gene. It also means that the era of “designer babies” could soon be upon us. While parents are, say, altering genes from their embryos that are linked to cancer, they could also be tempted to tweak the genes that control simple traits like eye, hair, or skin color. In the future, they might be able to enhance their children’s intelligence, meaning that those who could afford to have their kids Crispered would have huge advantages over those who couldn’t.
He’s announcement brought attention to the reality that tweaking future humans with Crispr is well within the capabilities of thousands of labs and fertility clinics, and that governing them all is going to be very hard.