What are the characteristics of a superman

Designer babies - There is still a very, very long way to go to genetically engineered superman

There is still a very, very long way to go to genetically engineered superman

The announcement of manipulations on the genetic material of embryos triggered violent reactions. It is feared that babies will soon be born as they wish. But how realistic are designer babies?

The response was to be expected, and it was great: from Shanghai to New York, the media reported last week - including “Nordwestschweiz” - in detail about the genetic changes in the human embryo, for which a British research team has received permission.

With the intervention in the human genome, the scientists want to gain new knowledge about the growth of embryos and make artificial insemination safer. Previously, the so-called “gene scissors” Crispr-Cas9 had only been used on the human embryo in China.

The reactions to the report are mixed. Christoph Rehmann-Sutter, professor of bioethics in Lübeck, sees nothing reprehensible in the experiment, as he said of "Northwestern Switzerland".

For Felix Häberlin, President of the Swiss Society for Reproductive Medicine (SGRM), the tests come too early: "The Crispr method has not yet been researched enough experimentally to be used on the human embryo."

But bioethicist Rehmann-Sutter also has reservations about Crispr: "If it were a question of producing genetically manipulated children, the alarm bells would ring for me."

The super gene does not exist

Genetically modified children, also known as designer babies: They hover like invisible ghosts over the debate about genetic research. Nobody can say with certainty whether experiments like the one in Great Britain might not pave the way for children who can be shaped as they please in the test tube.

Wanted children, highly intelligent, good-looking, athletically built, musically gifted and blessed with an angelic patience.

But will research ever be able to produce such a person?

Theoretically yes, says the reproductive medicine specialist Häberlin: “Humans keep on researching. He can't help it. "

Seen in this light, it is likely that such interventions in the genome will one day be possible. Before that happens, however, many obstacles, some of which are complex, have to be overcome. “That's why we're still very, very far away from the designer baby,” says Häberlin with conviction.

Elsbeth Stern, intelligence researcher at ETH Zurich, shares the same opinion: "I do not believe that a child will be born in our lifetime that has been tailor-made using genetic manipulation."

The method of exchanging genes is already in place thanks to Crispr-Cas9. But nobody really knows which genes make people intelligent, tall or brown-haired.

The difficulty of finding them is particularly evident in intelligence: there is not a single super-gene that controls it. There are many different genes that are scattered throughout the genome and interact with one another.

Intelligence researchers are keenly interested in which genes make people smart. The only difference is that they cannot track them down. And even if one day it is clear which DNA segments would have to be exchanged in order to breed little geniuses, this could have serious side effects. Because a gene can have more than one function.

Stern explains this using an example: "If you swap a gene in order to father a super-intelligent child, your nose may not grow because the gene is also responsible for forming the nose."

But even if we know in the distant future which genes determine a person's characteristics and can play with them like with Lego bricks, that alone does not make a designer baby. Because characteristics such as intelligence, eye color or size do not depend on genes alone. Even the best disposition is of no use to a person if he does not grow up in a beneficial environment. When he doesn't get enough food and security as a child.

The discussion as to whether genes or the environment determine the essence of human beings ran for a long time under the title “Nature versus Nurture”.

Today we know, however, that this is not a duel between two rivals, but an interaction, “Nature via Nurture”. The environment ensures that genetic makeup can develop.

However, if you are born with the wrong genetic makeup, the perfect environment is of no use, says Stern: "With unfavorable genes, nobody becomes super-intelligent."

"Great potential for abuse"

The road to genetically engineered superman is rocky and still a long way. And even if the necessary knowledge were available, it has not yet been said that it would also be used in this sense.

According to the reproductive medicine specialist Häberlin, it is crucial that it is used strictly medically. For example, to identify serious hereditary diseases - and not target designer babies. "But of course, if a corresponding procedure existed, the potential for abuse would be great," says Häberlin.

It is also important that society hold a discussion about the purposes for which gene screening and changes are to be allowed.

Pre-implantation diagnosis (PGD) already makes it possible to recognize and avoid certain serious hereditary diseases in the embryo and to determine its gender.

If one speaks of a medical indication in the first case, the choice of gender belongs to the designer baby category. Strictly speaking, there are already designer babies, because in certain countries like the USA the choice of gender is allowed.

In Switzerland, however, it will remain banned even if the people approve the PGD in the referendum vote next June.

Häberlin says that it only happens every two years that a couple wants to determine the sex of their child during artificial insemination.