Within 20 to 40 years, sex will no longer be the preferred method of reproduction. Instead, half the population with decent health care will–no shitting you–have eggs grown from human skin and fertilized with sperm, then have the entire genome of about 100 embryo samples sequenced, peruse the highlights, and pick the best model to implant. At least that’s what Stanford law professor and bioethicist Hank Greely predicts in The End of Sex and the Future of Human Reproduction. But skin-grown humans aside, how long until we have “designer babies”?
Here’s where we are: a gene-editing tool called CRISPR/Cas9 has produced a variety of terrifying wonders over the past few years. In August, a group of scientists announced that they had successfully edited a human embryo to eradicate a heart condition. (The validity of their paper, published in the journal Nature, is now disputed, but Chinese scientists also claimed to have edited embryos in 2015, though with less success.) And “designer pets” are already within reach; mice have been turned green. Beagles have been doubledin muscle mass. Pigs have been shrunk to the size of cocker spaniels with “designer fur.” Woolly mammoths are being attempted.
Greely expects human selection to be less like the Build-a-Bear workshop which “designer pets” suggests, in which you start from scratch with a base animal and pick features from a menu, but rather in which prospective parents select from a pot of about 100 embryos made by two people for preferences like gender and health, and maybe tweak out the hereditary diseases with CRISPR/Cas9.
It’s debatable when and how CRISPR-edited embryos will be approved for implantation (Congress has currently banned the FDA from even considering it), and scientists are currently wrestling over putting a moratorium on its use on humans. CRISPR’s own co-founder Jennifer Doudna fears what eugenic nightmare her technology could bring; in 2015, she co-signed a letter calling for thorough investigation into potential risks “before any attempts at human engineering are sanctioned, if ever, for clinical testing.”