By Frank Remele
It was not my intention to lure you into clicking on the article through use of a provocative title that makes the hair on the back of your neck crawl. Nor was it my intention to call for immediate legislation out of moral sanctitude drawn from what may be primal instincts to radical change. Rather, I could not think of a title more apt for a topic of discussion that I feel captures the essence of what genomic sequencing might entail. It’s my belief that even the hard constituency of progressives may find they hit the wall in terms of what is palpable to them them and their political convictions. I find that society at large determining which embryos are selected according to their desirable traits relative to what the parent feels is most beneficial to their success is a society that will inevitably emerge when technological advancements reverberate throughout a culture.
To those that are skeptical, your skepticism is derived from my premise, which understandably appears to have elements of science fiction coupled with moral implications that deviate wildly from our own. Both of these elements, however, are completely within the grasp of future society.
Understanding the scientific data that markedly points to genomic sequencing in the near future requires only an intuitive sense of exponential growth. Take, for example, Moore’s law of computational processing, which holds that the number of transistors able to functionally operate on a circuit doubles around every two years. That’s exponential growth, and it’s the reason you often hear science enthusiasts anecdotally referencing that the iPhones of today have far more computational power than all of NASA in 1965. It’s a nice conceptualization of how quickly technological advancements can transform a society. But even this rate of advancement in informatics takes a backseat to the precipitous drop in cost of human genome sequencing. .
In 1990, the publicly funded Human Genome Project launched in an effort to both ascertain the sequence of base pairs in human DNA, and identify and map all genes in the human genome. It was an arduous task, with heavy support from the international scientific community. Several other private organizations were also in contention for becoming the first entity to sequence the human genome. By 2001, both the privately run Celera Genomics and the Human Genome Project succeeded in what they sought to do. For the Human Genome Project, the aggregate cost was a staggering $3 billion. Scientific progress brought us to 2015, where the cost of sequencing a genome fell to a mere $1000 per individual. We see as a general rule that when a technology becomes relevant on a mass level, the market breaks all scientific ceilings and the cost takes a swift turn downward. The genomics and biotechnology company 23andme already fills a large niche in society, having approximately two million people screened for genetic abnormalities and disease risk. Despite significantly less value in individuals that have already left the womb, with their genetic variants fixed, a significant number long to understand the story behind their DNA. For their children, the market speaks to a foregone conclusion. Prenatal genetic screening will become invaluable as the selection for desirable phenotypes becomes common ground. The moral implications, however, are dubious. A hefty portion of society will be vehemently opposed to embryonic selection at the most fundamental level, where obvious abnormalities such as Down Syndrome can be avoided. Stephen Hsu, Vice President of Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University, asserts those people will come around. Perhaps not entirely, due to more progressive political convictions, but rather to the economic and social pressures exerted by society evolving on a fundamental level. In an evocative piece for the science journal Nautilus, Hsu writes, “Each society will decide for itself where to draw the line on human genetic engineering, but we can expect a diversity of perspectives…Eventually, though, I believe many countries will not only legalize human genetic engineering, but even make it a (voluntary) part of their national healthcare systems. The alternative would be inequality of a kind never before experienced in human history.” However strong the beliefs of the conservative and reactionary demographic holds, the universal desire for our children’s success may yet overcome them. When moral barriers are shattered, the only factor between our own society and genetic engineering is the cost-benefit analysis that will inevitably need to be addressed with the looming issue of pleiotropy.
As many financially unfortunate well know, one’s credit score follows them with every economic transaction they make. It exists in the hope of regulating an individual’s tendency for failing to make satisfactory returns on a loan, and it is highly predictive of financial integrity. More importantly, it is a ubiquitous metric in contemporary society, and I suspect there is predictive value in them that extends well beyond financial competence. Similar metrics may become common-ground for genetic information. Polygenic scores are probabilistic measures that assess the risk for genetic abnormalities and phenotypes on a general level. These are constructed by taking into account different phenotypic characteristics, such as height or nose length, and categorically observing the effects of genes that are directly (or indirectly) linked to qualitative differences among species. For example, say there are ten different genes that affect height in chimpanzees. There are two different variants of a particular gene, positive or negative, with a positive variant corresponding to two points, and a negative variant corresponding with zero, for a possible cumulative score of twenty-four points. More points increases the probability of reaching a target height, which for our purposes will be six feet. Some genes will hold more weight than others: two genes with a positive variant will be weighted as four points. To test our heuristic, we would need to gather a large enough data pool, (ex. 1,000,000 chimpanzees), assess the point scores and heights of all subjects, and control for environment- or at least maintain some level of scientific confidence that environmental influence will be but a red herring. True genomic analysis is far more complex than hypothetical genes with a binary set of variants- but conceptually, it works in the same manner as our experiment. The correlation between a score of 24 points and actual height might “only” be .85, if environment has any say. But the overwhelming influence of genetics details how deadly accurate prenatal genetic evaluation can be. While our society seems to be fixated on controlling environmental inhibitors for valuable traits, the answer consistently lies in the genes. If we can fundamentally alter the best predictors for phenotypic characteristics, your 5’2 parents may not inherently disadvantage your future child from playing in the NBA. But there may be associated side effects.
Perhaps you, as a parent, long to foster a child capable of playing in the NBA. Given that you are 6’5, and your spouse 5’9, there is a fairly reasonable probability your son comes within four inches of your height. Any height that exits that normal deviation is statistically pushing it, so there is some significant probability that your son will fall at, or close to, the average height of playing in the NBA. For those that aren’t genetically tailored for height demanding sports, if scientists are able to trace the alleles linked to height, and are able to make embryonic changes in vitro, naturally selected heights won’t hold much water in the race for desirable traits. However, pleiotropy counters this by ensuring that a particular gene may have more than one effect, and the effects aren’t necessarily uniformly linked. If it becomes apparent that an artificial increase in height of two inches significantly increases the probability of Marfan’s syndrome, future parents will need to conduct a cost to benefit analysis as to whether in vitro editing is the correct choice. It is important to understand that embryonic screening will happen, albeit with caveats.