Genetics Researcher Just Made Gattaca a Reality with CRISPR Babies

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Designer babies! No, I’m not talking about babies wearing, like Burberry or Badgley Mischka or…I’m sorry, I don’t know any designer clothing brands. Anyway no, I’m talking about the evil kind of designer babies. Or, I guess more evil than a baby barfing on a Burberry onesie. The kind of babies you design to your exact specifications, which is the sort of thing that many a dystopia has been built upon, like Gattaca. Super babies. If I could design a baby I’d make it so that it is born knowing how to use a toilet and never screaming, and also with a good job so it will take care of me in my old age, i.e. now, but in books and movies it’s usually about designing a baby to be super intelligent, or super attractive. When it grows up, I mean. I don’t think the point is to just make attractive babies. That would be weird.

We as a society are actually close to being able to do this. There’s a tool called CRISPR, which stands for Clustered Regularly-Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. CRISPR is a way to edit the genes in a cell, allowing you to snip DNA and replace it with something new, or to make certain genes turn on or off.

For years this method has been used in experiments on yeasts, plants, non-human animals, and the very occasional non-viable human fetus. There was a general agreement in the science community that this new technology was nowhere near refined enough to actually use on the human germline — that is, human DNA that is edited and then can be passed down to the next generation. Because that’s serious fucking business.

So it came as a bit of a shock when a Chinese researcher announced in a fucking YouTube video that not only was he going ahead with editing the genes of viable human fetuses, but that twin girls named Lulu and Nana had already been born with his modifications in place. And then he went to International Human Genome Editing Summit and informed everyone there that he’s proud of what he’s done and there’s already another baby on the way. It’s like if Dr. Moreau had suddenly turned up at a genetics conference in 2018 and said “oh yeah I’ve been making donkey people for years, just because. It’s pretty awesome. Why do you all look so angry? Did you not listen to my podcasts about it?”

He Jiankui actually just sounds worse and worse the more you learn about him. He got potential parents who were HIV positive to agree to participate by telling them that he was working on an HIV vaccine that would ensure their children would be born without the disease, failing to mention anything about gene editing. Scientists suspect that if a person’s CCR5 gene is mutated, then HIV can’t use it as a portal to other cells, effectively making a person immune to the disease.

Unfortunately, He couldn’t ensure that all the cells he was implanting actually received the DNA edit, while at least one resulted in a CCR5 gene with extra amino acids. He claims the parents understood all the risks involved in this but we have no way of knowing, since all we have is his word that he explained it to them very clearly.

Now that the twins have been born, sequencing their genes was unable to show that their DNA was correctly altered. And instead of an actual peer-reviewed paper to examine, all scientists have is He’s YouTube videos and interviews with the press to judge whether or not this can be called a “success.” Other geneticists have looked at the few data points He has made public and one, Sean Ryder, pointed out that the actual resulting genes have been edited in a way completely unlike anything that’s been studied, so we have no idea what the result will be. Will the girls be immune to HIV? Maybe. Will they have tails? Who knows?

It’s fucked up, because Lulu and Nana are two actual living humans who now have to live with He’s bonkers decisions. And the negative PR from this may end up setting back gene editing by a decade as the scientific community comes together to try to figure out how to stop this shit from happening again. Literally everyone is worse off for this and not to be too subtle about my feelings, but I think He should be fired into the sun on a rocket ship. Hey, maybe Elon Musk can help with that. We can convince them that this is a new experiment and because we’re all such rogue all-stars we don’t need an ethics committee to review it. Just shove He in a tiny coffin submarine, strap it to a rocket, and boom, into the sun. Brilliant. I’m going to go try to drum up some venture capital right now.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. You gotta just love a so called Scientist who publishes his results as a You Tube video.
    Fortunately the Chinese National Health Commision is investigating.
    They take such matters very seriously.
    He will be lucky to escape punishment even more draconian than your excellent proposal.

    1. Chinese government interested in truth. Good luck with that one.

      TBH, He is disturbing for reasons beyond the mere ethical concerns of this case. We’re dealing with a resurgence of eugenics, and it antedates Trump’s interest in politics. (TBH, most of the eugenists were on the Clinton side. Just like the neocons and a bunch of other old enemies of mine.)

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