Why the Panic Over "Designer Babies" Is the Wrong Worry
BIG QUESTION OF THE MONTH: Should we use CRISPR, the new technique that enables precise DNA editing, to change the genes of human embryos to eradicate disease--or even to enhance desirable traits? LeapsMag invited three leading experts to weigh in.
CRISPR is producing an important revolution in the biosciences, a revolution that will change our world in fundamental ways. Its implications need to be discussed and debated, and not just by scientists and ethicists. Unfortunately, so far we are debating the wrong issues.
Controversy has raged about editing human genes, particularly the DNA of embryos that could pass the changes down to their descendants. This technology, human germline editing, seems highly unlikely to be broadly available for at least the next few decades; if and when it is, it may well be unimportant.
Human germline editing is unlikely to happen soon because it has important safety risks but almost no significant benefits.
Human germline editing is unlikely to happen soon because it has important safety risks but almost no significant benefits. The risks – harm to babies – are compelling. We care a lot about babies. A technology that worked 95 percent of the time (and produced disabled or dying infants "only" five percent of the time) would be a disaster. Our concern for babies will lead, at the least, to rigorous legal requirements for preapproval safety testing. Many countries will just impose flat bans.
But these risks also have implications beyond safety regulation. For this technology to take off, physicians, assisted reproduction clinics, and geneticists will have to be willing to put their reputations – and their malpractice liability – on the line. And prospective mothers will have to be willing to take unknown risks with their children.
Sometimes, large and unknown risks are worth taking, but not here. For the next few decades, human germline editing offers almost no substantial benefits, for health or for enhancement.
Prospective parents already have a tried and true alternative to avoid having children with genetic diseases: preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). In PGD, clinicians remove cells from three- to five-day-old embryos. Those cells are then tested to see which embryos would inherit the disease and which would not. This technology has been in use for over 27 years and is safe and effective. Rather than engaging in editing an embryo's disease-causing DNA, parents can just select embryos without those DNA variations. For so-called autosomal recessive diseases, three out of four embryos, on average, will be disease free; for autosomal dominant diseases, half will be.
Only a handful of prospective parents would need to use gene editing to avoid genetic disease.
Couples where each has the same recessive condition (cystic fibrosis) or where one of them has the terrible luck to have two copies of the DNA variant for a dominant disease (Huntington's disease). In those cases, the prospective parents would need to stay alive long enough to be able, and be sufficiently healthy to want, to have children. In a world of 7.3 billion humans, there will be some such cases, but they will probably be no more than a few thousand – or hundred.
People are also concerned about germline editing for genetic enhancement. But this is also unlikely anytime soon. We know basically nothing about genetic variations that enhance people beyond normal. For example, we know hundreds of genes that, when damaged, affect intelligence – but these all cause very low intelligence. We know of no variations that non-trivially increase it.
Over the next few decades, we might (or might not) learn about complex diseases where several genes are involved, making embryo selection less useful. And we might (or might not) learn about genetic enhancements involving DNA sequences not typically found in prospective parents and so not available to embryo selection. By that time, the safety issues could be resolved.
And, even then, how worried should we be – and about what? A bit, but not very and not about much.
"The human germline genome is not the holy essence of humanity."
The human germline genome is not the holy essence of humanity. For one thing, it doesn't really exist. There are 7.3 billion human germline genomes; each of us has a different one. And those genomes change every generation. I do not have exactly the same genetic variations my parents received from my grandparents; my children do not have exactly the ones I received from my parents. The DNA changed, through mutation, during each generation.
And our editing will usually be insignificant in the context of the whole human genome. For medical purposes, we will change some rare DNA variations that cause disease into the much more common DNA variations that do not cause disease. Rare, nasty variants will become rarer, but civilization changes these frequencies all the time. For instance, the use of insulin has increased the number of people with DNA variations that predispose people to type 1 ("juvenile") diabetes – because now those people live long enough to reproduce. Even agriculture changed our DNA, leading, for example, to more copies of starch-digesting genes. And, in any event, what is the meaningful difference between "fixing" a disease gene in an embryo or waiting to fix it with gene therapy in a born baby . . . other than avoiding the need to repeat the gene therapy in the next generation?
If genetic enhancement ever becomes possible in a non-trivial way, it would raise important questions, but questions about enhancement generally and not fundamentally about genetics. Enhancement through drugs, prosthetics, brain-computer interfaces, genes, or tools (like the laptop I wrote this on) all raise similar ethical issues. We can use the decades we will have to try to think more systematically about the ethical and policy issues for all enhancements. We should not panic about germline genetic enhancement.
One superficially appealing argument is that we are not wise enough to change our own genomes. This ignores the fact that we have been changing our genomes, inadvertently, since at least the dawn of civilization. We do not have to be wise enough to change our genome perfectly; we just need to be wise enough to change it better than the random and unforeseen ways we change it now. That should not be beyond our power.
Human germline editing will not be a concern for several decades and it may never be an important concern. What should we be paying attention to?
Non-human genome editing. Governments, researchers, and even do-it-yourself hobbyists can use CRISPR, especially when coupled with a technique called "gene drive," to change the genomes of whole species of living things – domestic or wild; animal, vegetable, or microbial – cheaply, easily, and before we even know it is happening. We care much less about mosquito babies than human ones and our legal structures are not built for wise and nuanced regulation of this kind of genome editing. Those issues demand our urgent attention – if we can tear ourselves away from dramatic but less important visions of "designer babies."
Inside the Atlantis Space Shuttle, astronauts waited for liftoff. At T-minus six seconds, the main engines ignited, rattling the capsule “like a skyscraper in an earthquake,” according to astronaut Tom Jones, describing the 1988 launch in Air & Space Magazine. Liftoff came with what felt like “a massive kick in the back,” he recalled, along with more shaking. As the rocket accelerated to three times the force of gravity on Earth, “It felt as if two of my friends were standing on my chest and wouldn’t get off!” Finally, at 25 times the speed of sound, Atlantis reached orbit. The main engines cut off, and the astronauts were weightless.
Since 1961, NASA has sent hundreds of astronauts into space while working to making their voyages safer and smoother. Yet, challenges remain. Weightlessness may look amusing when watched from Earth, but it has myriad effects on cognition, movement and other functions. When missions to space stretch to six months or longer, microgravity can harm astronauts’ health and performance, making it more difficult to operate their spacecraft.
Yesterday, NASA astronaut Frank Rubio returned to Earth after over one year, the longest single spaceflight for a U.S. astronaut. But this is just the start; longer and more complex missions into deep space loom ahead, from returning to the moon in 2025 to eventually sending humans to Mars. Understanding how spaceflight affects the body is vital to success. By studying these impacts, NASA aims to help astronauts perform in space as well as they do on Earth.
The dangers of microgravity are real
A NASA report published in 2016 details a long list of incidents and near-misses caused – at least partly – by space-induced changes in astronauts’ vision and coordination. These issues make it harder to move with precision and to judge distance and velocity.
According to the report, in 1997, a resupply ship collided with the Mir space station, possibly because a crew member bumped into the commander during the final docking maneuver. This mishap caused significant damage to the space station.
Returns to Earth suffered from problems, too. The same report notes that touchdown speeds during the first 100 space shuttle landings were “outside acceptable limits. The fastest landing on record – 224 knots (258 miles) per hour – was linked to the commander’s momentary spatial disorientation.” Earlier, each of the six Apollo crews that landed on the moon had difficulty recognizing moon landmarks and estimating distances. For example, Apollo 15 landed in an unplanned area, ultimately straddling the rim of a five-foot deep crater on the moon, harming one of its engines.
Spaceflight causes unique stresses on astronauts’ brains and central nervous systems. NASA is working to reduce these harmful effects.
Space messes up your brain
In space, astronauts face the challenges of microgravity, ionizing radiation, social isolation, high workloads, altered circadian rhythms, monotony, confined living quarters and a high-risk environment. Among these issues, microgravity is one of the most consequential in terms of physiological changes. It changes the brain’s structure and its functioning, which can hurt astronauts’ performance.
The brain shifts upwards within the skull, displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes.
That’s partly because of how being in space alters blood flow. On Earth, gravity pulls our blood and other internal fluids toward our feet, but our circulatory valves ensure that the fluids are evenly distributed throughout the body. In space, there’s not enough gravity to pull the fluids down, and they shift up, says Rachael D. Seidler, a physiologist specializing in spaceflight at the University of Florida and principal investigator on many space-related studies. The head swells and legs appear thinner, causing what astronauts call “puffy face chicken legs.”
“The brain changes at the structural and functional level,” says Steven Jillings, equilibrium and aerospace researcher at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. “The brain shifts upwards within the skull,” displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes. Some of the displaced cerebrospinal fluid goes into cavities within the brain, called ventricles, enlarging them. “The remaining fluids pool near the chest and heart,” explains Jillings. After 12 consecutive months in space, one astronaut had a ventricle that was 25 percent larger than before the mission.
Some changes reverse themselves while others persist for a while. An example of a longer-lasting problem is spaceflight-induced neuro-ocular syndrome, which results in near-sightedness and pressure inside the skull. A study of approximately 300 astronauts shows near-sightedness affects about 60 percent of astronauts after long missions on the International Space Station (ISS) and more than 25 percent after spaceflights of only a few weeks.
Another long-term change could be the decreased ability of cerebrospinal fluid to clear waste products from the brain, Seidler says. That’s because compressing the brain also compresses its waste-removing glymphatic pathways, resulting in inflammation, vulnerability to injuries and worsening its overall health.
The effects of long space missions were best demonstrated on astronaut twins Scott and Mark Kelly. This NASA Twins Study showed multiple, perhaps permanent, changes in Scott after his 340-day mission aboard the ISS, compared to Mark, who remained on Earth. The differences included declines in Scott’s speed, accuracy and cognitive abilities that persisted longer than six months after returning to Earth in March 2016.
By the end of 2020, Scott’s cognitive abilities improved, but structural and physiological changes to his eyes still remained, he said in a BBC interview.
“It seems clear that the upward shift of the brain and compression of the surrounding tissues with ventricular expansion might not be a good thing,” Seidler says. “But, at this point, the long-term consequences to brain health and human performance are not really known.”
NASA astronaut Kate Rubins conducts a session for the Neuromapping investigation.
Staying sharp in space
To investigate how prolonged space travel affects the brain, NASA launched a new initiative called the Complement of Integrated Protocols for Human Exploration Research (CIPHER). “CIPHER investigates how long-duration spaceflight affects both brain structure and function,” says neurobehavioral scientist Mathias Basner at the University of Pennsylvania, a principal investigator for several NASA studies. “Through it, we can find out how the brain adapts to the spaceflight environment and how certain brain regions (behave) differently after – relative to before – the mission.”
To do this, he says, “Astronauts will perform NASA’s cognition test battery before, during and after six- to 12-month missions, and will also perform the same test battery in an MRI scanner before and after the mission. We have to make sure we better understand the functional consequences of spaceflight on the human brain before we can send humans safely to the moon and, especially, to Mars.”
As we go deeper into space, astronauts cognitive and physical functions will be even more important. “A trip to Mars will take about one year…and will introduce long communication delays,” Seidler says. “If you are on that mission and have a problem, it may take eight to 10 minutes for your message to reach mission control, and another eight to 10 minutes for the response to get back to you.” In an emergency situation, that may be too late for the response to matter.
“On a mission to Mars, astronauts will be exposed to stressors for unprecedented amounts of time,” Basner says. To counter them, NASA is considering the continuous use of artificial gravity during the journey, and Seidler is studying whether artificial gravity can reduce the harmful effects of microgravity. Some scientists are looking at precision brain stimulation as a way to improve memory and reduce anxiety due to prolonged exposure to radiation in space.
To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Additionally, NASA is scrutinizing each aspect of the mission, including astronaut exercise, nutrition and intellectual engagement. “We need to give astronauts meaningful work. We need to stimulate their sensory, cognitive and other systems appropriately,” Basner says, especially given their extreme confinement and isolation. The scientific experiments performed on the ISS – like studying how microgravity affects the ability of tissue to regenerate is a good example.
“We need to keep them engaged socially, too,” he continues. The ISS crew, for example, regularly broadcasts from space and answers prerecorded questions from students on Earth, and can engage with social media in real time. And, despite tight quarters, NASA is ensuring the crew capsule and living quarters on the moon or Mars include private space, which is critical for good mental health.
Exploring deep space builds on a foundation that began when astronauts first left the planet. With each mission, scientists learn more about spaceflight effects on astronauts’ bodies. NASA will be using these lessons to succeed with its plans to build science stations on the moon and, eventually, Mars.
“Through internally and externally led research, investigations implemented in space and in spaceflight simulations on Earth, we are striving to reduce the likelihood and potential impacts of neurostructural changes in future, extended spaceflight,” summarizes NASA scientist Alexandra Whitmire. To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.