Creating a generation of bioengineered humans

By: Adeola Onafuwa, staff writer

We are now consciously designing and altering the physiological forms that inhabit our planet.” – Paul Root Wolpe.

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Would you engineer the specifications of your baby? Would you want him or her to be taller, healthier, smarter, better?

Bioengineering has been a part of human life for centuries. 4000 – 2000 B.C in Egypt, bioengineering was first used to leaven bread and ferment beer using yeast. In 1322, an Arab chieftain first used artificial semen to produce superior horses. By 1761, we were successfully crossbreeding crop plants in different species. Humanity took the big leap on July 5, 1996 at the Roslin Institute in Scotland where Dolly the sheep was created and became the first mammal to have been successfully cloned from an adult cell.

Two years later, we experienced an increased eagerness to explore the world of cloning which resulted in the first cloning of a cow from fetal cell, the cloning of a goat from embryonic cell, the cloning of three generations of mice from the nuclei of adult ovarian cumulus, and the cloning of Noto and Kaga – the first cloned cows from adult cells. We were advancing quickly. Maybe too quickly.

Fast forward to the present, and the world faces incredible possibilities in the field of bioengineering. The prospect of designing babies is by far one of the most astonishing.

Scientists argue that advancements in biotechnology have provided much needed opportunities to combat life-threatening diseases. Not only can certain diseases and virus be cured, they can be prevented from manifesting in hosts.

Now, through a process called germline therapy, potential parents have a chance to alter their offspring’s DNA and prevent the transfer of lethal genes. In the same light, some parents choose to afflict their offspring with certain deficiencies, as odd as it might seem. The New York Times published a detailed article reporting how some parents intentionally choose malfunctioning genes that produce disabilities like deafness and dwarfism to help produce children more like their parents. Is this a narcissistic activity that promotes the deliberate crippling of children, or is it a blessing to the prospective parents and their kids?

Abiola Ogungbemile, a clinical engineer who works at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, expressed mixed reactions about the practices in bioengineering: “Sometimes, you never know where research is going to take you. The point of engineering is to make life easier and it basically involves choosing the lesser evil. It is life.”

Ogungbemile further stressed that although bioengineering and biomedical engineering are different practices, “there have to be boundaries and there has to be structure” guiding the activities of both fields.

Global Reactions

This idea of creating humans according to personal preferences has evoked a mixture of panic, optimism, disgust, confusion, horror and relief worldwide, with some people calling for stringent ethical laws to guide the practice of bioengineering, especially concerning in-vitro fertilization. Are we being myopic or is there a genuine cause for alarm at the idea of creating “designer babies?”

The Chinese government has begun taking noticeable steps to actualize its goal of creating detailed maps of smart individuals’ genes. This would inevitably affect the natural order and balance of intellectual distribution. It is a deliberate attempt, one with little regard for morality and ethics, and with the China Development Bank funding this initiative with a hefty $1.5 billion, we can be sure that it’s only a matter of time before we see a new era of super intelligent humans.

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