CRISPR Babies: Are we entering the Gattaca-era?

HOX Zodiac

Last week in HC 177, we went over the HOX Zodiac, an interactive art workshop and collaborative brainchild of Professor Vesna's and Siddharth Ramakrishnan, in which participants learn about the HOX gene via a commemorative dinner party dedicated to the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac. 

Hox genes, according to Scitable, are a group of transcription factors that play a major role in regulating animal development and segment identification in embryos. In layman terms, it's the thingy that says what thingy goes where. A body plan, if you will. It's why our heads are on top of our body and not on our backsides. 

By manipulating this gene, scientists can give birth to chimeric creatures, Frankenstein-style, gifting us with rather disturbing images, such as that of this mutated drosophila with legs in place of antennas. 

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="1500"] Taken from Khan Academy - Image credit: modified from Antennapedia mutation by toony, CC BY-SA 3.0. The modified image is licensed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license[/caption]

The HOX gene is shared by most animals and illustrates the way humans and animals are intimately related. The same HOX genes that planned the layout of our fingers are the ones that designed the paws of a dog and the hooves of a cow. 

The HOX Zodiac project sought to focus on this essential connection, exploring the relationship between humans and animals. Participants are to bring a food that is either made of their zodiac animal (beef for cows) or that their zodiac animal would eat (grains for cows). In class, Professor Vesna prepared an eccentric and delicious zodiac themed array of snacks for us to munch on. Important imagery below!

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="480"] Tortilla chips and dip made from beets[/caption][caption id="" align="alignnone" width="480"] Olive, crackers, and kimchi?![/caption]

 

CRISPR Babies

Though we went over A LOT of interesting material in class, the topic of genetic manipulation came up quite often, making me think about the extent to which we humans manipulate the creatures and organisms around us. Some of this manipulation was key to human societal development, such as the selective breeding of animals for domestication, or genetic modification of crops to grow bigger, better food. 

However, sometimes it seems almost frivolous. For example, in 2009, Korean scientists inserted fluorescent genes into puppies so that they glow red under ultraviolet light. This was done for little reason other than to see if it could be done, as far as I could tell. Though transgenic dogs could be potential models for disease studies in the future, the cost of laboratory rearing puppies and the relative disadvantage of dogs as research animals (compared to pigs or mice) hardly justifies this. 

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="500"]Ruppy the transgenic puppy at 10 days old under ultraviolet light, showing the red fluorescent protein produced by sea anemones (Photo: Byeong Chun Lee). 10 day old Ruppy, the glowing puppy. Photo: Byeong Chun Lee[/caption]

It seems this kind of manipulation isn't just limited to the species around us, but ourselves as well. In class we touched on the topic of CRISPR babies. 

On November 25, 2018, researcher Jiankui He announced the birth of twin girls (Nana and Lulu) who had their genes altered to reduce the risk of contracting HIV. He had accomplished this alleged genetic manipulation using CRISPR, a gene editing tool, to delete the CCR5 gene, which is responsible for encoding the protein that allows HIV to enter cells.

While the ethics of this experiment was already pretty shaky, considering he had apparently neglected to do adequate safety testing and failed to follow standard procedures in procuring participants, things become even more suspicious when considering the deletion of CCR5 is also known to improve cognition in mice, a topic currently being studied at UCLA. 

Could He have been attempting to create genius super babies under the guise of protecting them from HIV? Needless to say, speculation and outcries erupted all over the world from scientists and the public alike. Even today, the issue is still a hot topic for debate.

Though there is no evidence that genetic manipulation worked on the girls or any way to prove He's intentions, it certainly has brought us a step closer to the cold possibility of a Gattaca-like future. 

If the Nana and Lulu do end up showing significantly high intelligence, how will the world react? Is that a moment of celebration for humanity, knowing we've found a way to make ourselves smarter? Or perhaps we will learn there are consequences to playing God in such a way. Will genetic manipulation become a norm in the future, when parents scramble to have this procedure performed to ensure their own children will have a genetic advantage over others? In which case, what will become of our social structure, when the rich will have easier access to these procedures, deepening the divide between classes? There are so many questions to be asked and none of us know if we want to hear the answers. What do you think will become us?

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="825"]Image result for gattaca Definitely recommend watching this movie if you haven't already[/caption]

Sources

“HOX ZODIAC: VICTORIA VESNA + SIDDHARTH RAMAKRISHNAN + MARISA CAICHILO.” UCLA Arts: School of the Arts and Architecture, 2018, arts.ucla.edu/single/hox-zodiac-victoria-vesna-siddharth-ramakrishnan-marisa-caichilo/.

Callaway, Ewen. “Fluorescent Puppy Is World's First Transgenic Dog.” New Scientist, www.newscientist.com/article/dn17003-fluorescent-puppy-is-worlds-first-transgenic-dog/.

Cyranoski, David. “The CRISPR-Baby Scandal: What's next for Human Gene-Editing.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 26 Feb. 2019, www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00673-1.

Myers, PZ. “Hox Genes in Development: The Hox Code.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 2008, www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/hox-genes-in-development-the-hox-code-41402.

Regalado, Antonio. “China's CRISPR Twins Might Have Had Their Brains Inadvertently Enhanced.” MIT Technology Review, MIT Technology Review, 22 Feb. 2019, www.technologyreview.com/s/612997/the-crispr-twins-had-their-brains-altered/.