The U.K. has just given the go-ahead for scientists to begin editing human embryos, sparking a huge national controversy.
It may have been a long time coming, but the United Kingdom has finally allowed scientists to begin experimenting with gene editing on human embryos. According to an AP report, the decision has raised ethical questions, sparking fears that genetic editing could one day lead to the prevalence of “designer babies,” or specifically engineered embryos that have desirable traits.
Scientists, however, say that they’re still a long way away from creating humans from scratch. The decision, made by Britain’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, requires that modified embryos be destroyed after only seven days. Britain is one of the first countries to use federal funds for human embryo editing research.
Genetic editing entails identifying, isolating, and deleting, repairing, or replacing tiny bits of DNA inside of a cell. You have probably heard of the CRISPR-Cas9 technique, which uses a pair of “genetic scissors” to edit a gene.
Already, a team of scientists from London’s Francis Crick Institute led by Kathy Niakan will begin to use gene editing to get a better view of an embryo’s growth patterns in the first week of its development. Scientists reiterated that none of the edited embryos will be transferred into women – each will grow to about 250 cells before being destroyed.
Critics of genetic editing worry that messing with the genetic code could lead to the introduction of designer babies. This would allow parents with the means to have their embryo edited could select desirable traits for their children. Tall, strong, intelligent, and good-looking children could be born without inheriting these genes from their parents, which could have widespread societal implications.
“This is the first step on a path that scientists have carefully mapped out towards the legalization [of genetically modified children],” said David King from the advocacy group Human Genetics Alert.
While many are worried about potential abuses of human embryo editing, scientists reiterated that the practice will only be used for furthering scientific understanding.
A press release from The Wellcome Trust, a global foundation dedicated to improving genetic editing practices for the betterment of human health, describing the push for human embryo editing in the U.K., can be found here.