Saturday, May 11, 2013

How close are we to replacing God?

My 20-something daughter woke up this morning with a severe headache, decidedly a bad way to start one’s weekend. She told me this as she joined me in the kitchen for our morning coffee.

But she did not just say, “Dad, I am having a severe headache”. No, that would be a very simple way of conveying information. What she said was: “Dad why did I have to get the ‘migraine’ gene from you?” Pretty dramatic eh! It sure got my attention and sympathy if that is what she was looking out for.

The initial repartee that came to my mind was, “Well you were conceived in the bedroom and not in a Petri-dish in some laboratory”. But I am a prude who was born in the 1960’s and brought up in conservative India.  We don’t talk about the science behind procreation with our children, even grown up ones. Left to ourselves we would like to let them believe that children just happened once a man and woman got married. So I held my tongue and responded with something like, “you get your genes as a package deal and cannot pick and choose”.

But later I was thinking about my initial repartee. Would it be possible to genetically engineer (the petri-dish way) a child today? What is the present state of scientific research on this? Are we anywhere close to allowing man to play God to be able to pick and choose the genetic traits of our offspring? And even if scientifically feasible, what are the practical and ethical challenges that lie ahead of us?

Having nothing better to do on a Saturday morning, I decided to devote about 30 minutes to surfing the web to see what I could find. This blog is a summary of my 30-minute Saturday morning surfing. It is not the last word on this topic nor do I claim that Google search came-up the most insightful articles.  But for whatever it is worth here is what I found from the first page of results:

The first link that I hit on took me to and their series on the top ten technologies. They put Genetic Engineering at #7 and the author of this piece, Mike Adams discusses the moral and ethical issues of genetic engineering and concludes that:
“We currently have neither the understanding of how DNA actually controls human behavior, nor the technology to selectively replace undesirable behaviors with ones we would prefer. There is no "violence" gene, for example, that could be reconfigured into a "peace" gene.
So we are nowhere close to being able to accomplish meaningful genetic engineering of humans even if we wanted, and that's a blessing, since we aren't mature enough as a civilization to deal with its implications”.
When I hit the second link on the Google search results page, I landed on a blog posting by Rebecca Sato on This is a 2009 article and in sharp contrast to the earlier article, Rebecca Sato maintains that:
“Nearly every day we are inundated with new genetic discoveries. Scientists can now pinpoint many specific genes including being lean, living a long life, improved self-healing, thrill seeking behavior, and having an improved memory among many other incredible traits. Many believe that these genes can be manipulated in ordinary humans, in effect creating Super-Mutants”
She goes on a flight of fantasy thinking about the limitless possibilities that genetic engineering throws up, but concludes that “Ethics, not scientific limitations, is the real brick wall”. An interesting article indeed!
I will conclude this blog post with the reference to the third link that I hit on. This seemed a more holistic and balanced article which acknowledged both the technological as well as ethical barriers to Human Genetic Engineering (HGE). In this essay, David King takes the reader through a fascinating journey touching on the various aspects of this hot topic of the day. He discusses the distinction between current knowledge (Currently, genetic engineering is only applied to non-reproductive cells -known as 'gene therapy'. in order to treat diseases in a single patient, rather than in all their descendants) and wholesale genetic engineering of the type that my daughter would have wished for (eliminate the ‘migraine gene’). He then goes on to discuss in some detail the various arguments for and against HGE, concluding with a discussion on the possible consequences if HGE became as ubiquitous as Facebook!

Happy Reading!