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OPINION: Practical embryonic DNA modification is coming and soon

Who should define the ethical limits of DNA manipulation?

NPR, August 2017: “[An] international team of scientists reports they have, for the first time, figured out a way to successfully edit the DNA in human embryos — without introducing the harmful mutations…”

That article went on to say the research is ultimately aimed at helping families plagued by genetic diseases. I think that part is wonderful. I had an uncle by marriage who had a complex genetic disease that he unknowingly passed to his daughters; it shortened their lives by several decades. Breaking those defective genetic chains would be a boon to the human race.

The potential issue is that DNA modification won’t stop there. What’s going to happen when someone says to the scientist repairing an embryo’s DNA, “While you’re at it, can you make him taller?” Eventually, even the “while you’re at it” part will go away altogether and we know those requests will be accompanied by both pleas for understanding and the prospect of big rewards – “I always had a complex about my height and I’d also like to fund your new research hospital.”

It’s human nature to want to give our offspring advantages; therefore, this has the potential of being a very big and expensive business. That poses another, maybe unsolvable, problem, a potential man-made DNA gap between the haves and have-nots.

In the science fiction film “Gattaca” – whose title was formed from the letters representing the four components of DNA - a future society is organized around genetic qualifications. While the story goes to the extreme to make a point and supplies the mandatory Hollywood ending, it’s food for thought.

If tall people have advantages in life, won’t most of us want tall children? The question may be moot until we have a choice in the matter, but that day is coming soon.

It’s time to put on our thinking caps because this is an area where we cannot afford to make preventable mistakes.

About:
Marty Richman (Marty Richman)

Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Marty (Martin G.) spent his teen years in northern New Jersey. He served more than 22 years on active military duty, mostly in Europe, and is a retired U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 4, Nuclear Weapons Technical Officer.Marty then worked 25 years in various engineering and management positions in the electronics and energetic materials industries supporting the communications, computer, aerospace, defense and automotive sectors. He is a graduate, summa cum laude, from The College of Hard Knocks, among his numerous awards and accomplishments. He was a regular weekly Op/Ed columnist and feature writer for The Hollister Free Lance for seven years and a member of its editorial board for five years. Marty is a frequent commentator and contributor to BenitoLink on a wide variety of local, state, national and international subjects. You can follow Marty Richman on twitter @Marty_Richman. Marty and his wife, Joyce, have been residents of Hollister since 1996.

Comments

The largest pressure on genetic manipulation will be the eradication of gene-induced diseases. The one major preventable mistake is any genetic modification at all. Without something limiting human life, the earth very quickly becomes uninhabitable. Everyone, including myself, has inherited a genetic marker that will eventually kill us. Your uncle's was his genetic disease. Mine is another genetic disease. So is yours. Today, 25% of this planet's population is capable of reproducing. That is 1.8 BILLION women who can double their population every nine months. If the other 5.5 BILLION people currently on the planet do not die, you can see the extinction of life will come within a decade from 30 BILLION people competing for vanishing sustenance. This will lead to war and more deaths until the population stabilizes under 10 BILLION.

Until we have a way to sustain an exponential increase in people, all genetic manipulation should be outlawed.

--William McCarey

Some time ago I wrote an opinion piece titled, "The Population Bomb turned out to be guided missiles" in which I gave my opinions on the issue, here is an extract...

"Only 3 of the 20 most populous nations, the United States (335 million, number 3), Japan (127 million, number 10), and Germany (83 million, number 12), can be considered to have a widespread, highly developed, standards of living; their populations total 545 million and they have a proportional fertility rate of 2.07 births/woman.

The balance of that group [the other 17 nations] consists of China 1.4 billion inhabitants, India 1.3 billion, Indonesia 256 million, Brazil 204 million, Pakistan 189 million, Nigeria 183 million, Bangladesh 160 million, Russia 142 million, Mexico 125 million, Philippines 102 million, Ethiopia 99 million, Vietnam 93 million, Egypt 85 million, Iran 79 million, Turkey 77 million, Congo 71 million, and Thailand 67 million. That is more than 4.6 billion; 8.5 times the population of the highly developed nations in the top 20. Those 17 nations have a proportional fertility rate of 2.39 births/woman."

I'll add that the highest population growth percentages in 2016 were concentrated in under-developed counties which could least afford to absorb and support those populations.  I think (1) getting the fertility rates and population growth rates down are a separate issue from genetic "defects" and (2) discussing the ethics of using DNA modification to extend longevity past unmodified lengths is worth talking about.

Marty Richman

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