Genetic Alteration FTW!

Posted by | August 27, 2012 | News | One Comment

Genetic Alteration FTW!

No genetic alteration needed. (image: C.Silver)

“Keep in mind, this child is still you. Simply, the best, of you. You could conceive naturally a thousand times and never get such a result.” – Fictional geneticist in the 1997 film Gattaca)

Often in our life we routinely question certain aspects of ourselves, and often the answer is the same – genetics. Our hair color, our eye color, height and bone formation. All these things are due to inherited traits, due to genetics that we draw biologically from our parents. In regards to Gunnars and the theme here, eyesight is a genetic trait that applies itself to the most modifications.

While you can wear colored contacts to change eye color, dye your hair and so on, eyesight is actually correctable through surgery. But often that surgery isn’t permanent and the problem still remains – we’re stuck with the genetic code that is passed down through our DNA. So the question is, will we be able to modify our genetics someday to eliminate things like poor eyesight or other deficiencies? Will this alteration be done in the womb or post-birth and maturation?

While once pure science fiction, or strictly limited to altering the DNA of plants, there have already been genetically altered human embryos. At this point the alteration was a protein to illuminate developing embryos, but only a step away from modifying embryos to eliminate disease. Once the science is there, it doesn’t stop (hypothetically) with disease. Intelligence, physical appearance and personality could be altered as well. The ethics of all this are of course hotly debated.

The worry of course is basically two fold. Either genetic alteration will be the destruction of us all (similar to nuclear weapons) or it will be used by those in power to create some sort of master race of people and a new caste system. Both scenarios are rife with paranoia and conspiracy theory, and neither appear to be on the near horizon as it is.

I spoke to a few people who work in the field of genetics, but they all pretty much had the same vague answer that went something like this: “My immediate notion is that in the near future (10 – 50 yrs) most genetic changes will be hard to accomplish and require lots of money. But there may be some exceptions. And then there’s always selective breeding. And it sounds like you’re already aware of the universe of ethical considerations.”

As for the ethical considerations, congress is one step ahead (for once) already banning chimeras. That is, no meshing animal DNA with human DNA thank you please. So far though, scientists are less thinking about making mad scientist modifications, than they are with treating disease and disorders, such as Huntington’s and muscular dystrophy. Going back to the science fiction though, could genetic modification be used to create a master race of humans? A race that could wear any pair of Gunnars they want, not worrying about corrective lenses?

While obviously that is specific to this website, think about it for a second here. All genetic mutations could be wiped out or altered, post or pre birth. You could alter genetic factors like height, eye color, hair, metabolism and so on. Which slides right back to the concerns about ethics. Do we really want to give science the opportunity to create a master race of humans? Would we really then be human still, or something else altogether?

As this delves into science fiction territory, we have to realize that generally speaking, the consideration of genetic alteration is extremely selfish. While the case can be made for curing disease, the people who would be able to afford genetic alteration would most likely use it for personal use. This is a process that will be very expensive and most likely not covered by any insurance. Though, like back alley kidney removal, I’m sure that there will be a way to get your unborn fetus dangerously cleared of any genetic abnormalities.

But what is normal? For instance, I wear prescription glasses. Who is say that not having perfect eyesight without corrective lenses isn’t normal? Perhaps bad eyesight is to blame for ancient wars taking longer than needed, or most impressionist art. Altering genetics could have side effects like destroying personality, destroying what makes us all individual and unique and creative. That’s all supposition, but has to be considered.

The reality is, no matter the ethical considerations, genetic alteration is not too far off from being a reality. Already we can alter our appearances, replace organs and eliminate disease better than ever before. It’s only a matter of time before we can do all these things before even being born, or as a preventative measure after birth. For now I suppose, we’ll have to settle for buying prescription lenses and dealing with going bald at the age of 18.

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