The Science Behind Designer Babies

babyThe term "designer baby" used to be found only in weblogs and sci-fi movies. But in 2004 the term made its way to the Oxford English Dictionary. The dictionary defines it as "a baby whose genetic makeup has been artificially selected by genetic engineering combined with in vitro fertilization to ensure the presence or absence of particular genes or characteristics."

From fiction to non-fiction

Imagine a number of couples in a waiting room, all excitedly looking through a variety of catalogs. But these catalogs are not your usual catalogs. Here, couples choose specific traits they want for their future babies. This process of creating a "perfect baby" may look like a scenario from a Twilight Zone episode, but it may be the reality tomorrow. Or maybe sooner.

Making a baby girl or a a baby boy used to be a trial-and-error affair for all couples. But not anymore, as couples can now turn to the newest genetic testing techniques to predetermine the sex of their babies with great accuracy. In fact, as early as 1997, a baby girl was born after a genetic prescreening.

In 2004, five babies were born to give stem cells for their siblings who had critical non-heritable conditions. A first in genetic engineering history, the "savior siblings" were created to treat children with conditions not related to genes. A technique known as preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) was employed to test embryos. The test looked for a tissue type that matched that of the ailing siblings. The team of scientists from the Reproductive Genetics Institute in Chicago said that the aim of the procedure was to provide stem cells for transplantation to young children who suffer from such rare condition as Diamond-Blackfan anemia as well as leukemia.

Germ line engineering

The first single-cell bacteria genetic engineering was accomplished in 1973. Since then, genetic engineering has gained much attention from scientists, leaders, and the general public. Scientists have already mastered genetic modifications in plants and animals and it is only a matter of time when this same procedure can be applied to humans in attempts to make the future generation much healthier, smarter, and better looking.

Basically, germ cell genetic modifications are changes performed with the eggs, sperm, or embryo. Over a certain period of time, these modifications may become part of the gene pool for good as germ cell characteristics are passed from generation to generation. Changes include the enhancement of genes that are linked with intelligence, appearance, and athletic ability. Germ line modifications also include the removal of hereditary diseases.

The debate

One reason proponents support germ line modification is because this procedure cleanses the gene pool of unwanted genes like diabetes. They also propose that genetic modification would help in preventing the need for repeated modifications for somatic cells. Also, with germ line modification, couples are given the opportunity to enhance certain characteristics of their future children.

On the other hand, critics attack germ line modification by stating that scientists cannot guarantee that characteristics an individual may want to preserve will not be modified or eliminated. Sometimes, genes that pose a threat in one area of the body, can be beneficial to other parts of the body. Thus, it is almost impossible to predict whether undesired characteristics would be the only ones eliminated.

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