It is the last great taboo of genetic medicine but some scientists now believe the time has come to consider the deliberate engineering of human eggs, sperm or embryos in order to block the transmission of inherited disorders by altering the DNA of all subsequent generations of affected families.
Germ-line gene therapy is banned in Britain and 14 other European countries but recent advances in the technology of gene-editing has meant that society should once again debate the idea of deliberating changing the genomes of future generations of children, scientists said.
“This technology is poised to transform preventive medicine. Rather than talk about the possibility of banning alteration of the human germ-line, we should instead be discussing how to stimulate ways to improve its safety and efficacy,” said Professor George Church, a leading geneticist at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
“Banning human germline editing could put a damper on the best medical research and instead drive the practice underground to black markets and uncontrolled medical tourism, which are fraught with much greater risk and misapplication,” Professor Church said.
Science news in pictures
Science news in pictures
1/20 'Tiny vampires' existed millions of years ago
Scientists have discovered that microscopic 'vampire' amoebae existed hundreds of millions of years ago, and they may have been some of the first predators on Earth. By examining ancient fossils with an electron microscope, paleobiologist Susannah Porter from UC Santa Barbara discovered tiny holes which may have been drilled by vampiric microbes. The tiny creatures are believed to be the ancestors of modern Vampyrellidae amoebae, and punctured holes in their prey before sucking out the contents of their cells
2/20 Kepler 62f
An Earth-like planet orbiting a star 1,200 light years away could have conditions suitable for life, say scientists. Kepler 62f is about 40 per cent larger than the Earth and may possess surface oceans. It is the outermost of five planets circling a star that is smaller and cooler than the sun discovered by the American space agency Nasa's Kepler space telescope in 2013
3/20 Vegetables grow well in soil from Mars
Scientists have taken a leaf out of the script of The Martian by showing how easy it would be to grow your own veg on the Red Planet. In the hit Ridley Scott film, a stranded astronaut played by Matt Damon uses his botanical skills to cultivate potatoes. Now his success has been emulated by researchers in the Netherlands who harvested tomatoes, peas, rye, rocket, radish and cress raised on simulated Martian soil supplied by Nasa
4/20 Ancient Roman 'leisure complex' unearthed in Jerusalem
An ancient Roman estate complete with its own wine press and bathhouse has been unearthed in Jerusalem. A series of buildings dating back at least 1,600 years were discovered underneath the city's famous Schneller Orphanage which operated on the site from 1860 until the end of the Second World War, when it was turned into an army base. The ruins were discovered by archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority who were excavating the site ahead of building new flats for the city's Orthodox Jewish community
5/20 Scientists discover possible new species of deep-sea octopus nicknamed 'Casper'
Scientists believe they may have found a new species of octopus likened in appearance to Casper, the friendly cartoon ghost. Researchers with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made the discovery by chance as they searched the seabed on an unrelated mission collecting geological samples. Teams were operating an unmanned submarine on the Pacific Ocean floor at depths of more than four kilometres (two-and-a-half miles) in the Hawaiian Islands when they spotted the unusual creature
6/20 Black hole captured eating a star then vomiting it back out
Astronomers have captured a black hole eating a star and then sicking a bit of it back up for the first time ever. The scientists tracked a star about as big as our sun as it was pulled from its normal path and into that of a supermassive black hole before being eaten up. They then saw a high-speed flare get thrust out, escaping from the rim of the black hole. Scientists have seen black holes killing and swallowing stars. And the jets have been seen before.But a new study shows the first time that they have captured the hot flare that comes out just afterwards. And the flare and then swallowed star have not been linked together before
7/20 'Male and female brains' aren't real
Brains cannot be categorised into female and male, according to the first study to look at sex differences in the whole brain. Specific parts of the brain do show sex differences, but individual brains rarely have all “male” traits or all “female” traits. Some characteristics are more common in women, while some are more common in men, and some are common in both men and women, according to the study
8/20 Dog-sized horned dinosaur fossil found shows east-west evolutionary divide in North America
A British scientist has uncovered the fossil of a dog-sized horned dinosaur that roamed eastern North America up to 100 million years ago. The fragment of jaw bone provides evidence of an east-west divide in the evolution of dinosaurs on the North American continent. During the Late Cretaceous period, 66 to 100 million years ago, the land mass was split into two continents by a shallow sea. This sea, the Western Interior Seaway, ran from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean. Dinosaurs living in the western continent, called Laramidia, were similar to those found in Asia
9/20 Asteroid to skim past Earth on Halloween 2015
A huge asteroid is set to skim by Earth on Halloween, just three weeks after it was first spotted. The rock is travelling through space at 78,000 miles per hour, and will fly past the Earth at a distance of only 300,000 miles – only slightly further away than our moon, and easily close enough for Nasa to class it a potentially hazardous object. The asteroid is bigger than a skyscraper
10/20 Life on Earth appeared hundreds of millions of years earlier than previously thought
Life may have come to earth 4.1 billion years ago, hundreds of millions of years earlier than we knew. The discovery, made using graphite that was trapped in ancient crystals, could mean that life began "almost instantaneously" after the Earth was formed. The researchers behind it have described the discovery as “a potentially transformational scientific advance”. Previously, life on Earth was understood to have begun when the inner solar system was hit by a massive bombardment from space, which also formed the moon's craters
11/20 Earth could be at risk of meteor impacts
Earth could be in danger as our galaxy throws out comets that could hurtle towards us and wipe us out, scientists have warned. Scientists have previously presumed that we are in a relatively safe period for meteor impacts, which are linked with the journey of our sun and its planets, including Earth, through the Milky Way. But some orbits might be more upset than we know, and there is evidence of recent activity, which could mean that we are passing through another meteor shower. Showers of meteors periodically pass through the area where the Earth is, as gravitational disturbances upset the Oort Cloud, which is a shell of icy objects on the edge of the solar system. They happen on a 26-million year cycle, scientists have said, which coincide with mass extinctions over the last 260-million years
12/20 Genetically-engineered, extra-muscular dogs
Chinese scientists have created genetically-engineered, extra-muscular dogs, after editing the genes of the animals for the first time. The scientists create beagles that have double the amount of muscle mass by deleting a certain gene, reports the MIT Technology Review. The mutant dogs have “more muscles and are expected to have stronger running ability, which is good for hunting, police (military) applications”, Liangxue Lai, one of the researchers on the project. Now the team hope to go on to create other modified dogs, including those that are engineered to have human diseases like muscular dystrophy or Parkinson’s. Since dogs’ anatomy is similar to those of humans’, intentionally creating dogs with certain human genetic traits could allow scientists to further understand how they occur
13/20 Nasa confirms Mars water discovery
Nasa has announced that it has found evidence of flowing water on Mars. Scientists have long speculated that Recurring Slope Lineae — or dark patches — on Mars were made up of briny water but the new findings prove that those patches are caused by liquid water, which it has established by finding hydrated salts.
14/20 Bees in the Rocky Mountains are evolving shorter tongues
With warmer summers, flowers in the Rockies have become shallower and more suited to shorter-tongued bees
15/20 The majority of the UK public believe in aliens
The titular alien character from 2011's 'Paul' - a poll has found the majority of the public in Britain, Germany and the US believe that intelligent life is out there in the universe
16/20 Researchers discover 'lost world' of arctic dinosaurs
Scientists say that the new dinosaur, known as Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis, “challenges everything we thought about a dinosaur’s physiology”. Florida State University professor of biological science Greg Erickson said: “It creates this natural question. How did they survive up here?”
17/20 Scientists find exactly what human corpses smell like
New research has become the first to isolate the particular scent of human death, describing the various chemicals that are emitted by corpses in an attempt to help find them in the future. The researchers hope that the findings are the first step towards working on a synthetic smell that could train cadaver dogs to be able to more accurately find human bodies, or to eventually developing electronic devices that can look for the scent themselves.
18/20 The Syrian civil war has caused the first ever withdrawal from the 'doomsday bank'
Researchers in the Middle East have asked for seeds including those of wheat, barley and grasses, all of which are chosen because especially resistant to dry conditions. It is the first withdrawal from the bank, which was built in 2008. Those researchers would normally request the seeds from a bank in Aleppo. But that centre has been damaged by the war — while some of its functions continue, and its cold storage still works, it has been unable to provide the seeds that are needed by the rest of the Middle East, as it once did.
19/20 A team of filmmakers in the US have made the first ever scale model of the Solar System in a Nevada desert
Illustrations of the Earth and moon show the two to be quite close together, Mr Overstreet said. This is inaccurate, the reason being that these images are not to scale.
20/20 Academics claim a full bladder makes for a better liar
People lie more convincingly if they have a full bladder, according to research by academics at California State University. Iris Blandón-Gitlin's team asked 22 students to lie to a panel of interviewers. Half were given 700ml to drink before the interview and the other half, just 50ml. The students with the full bladders showed fewer signs that they were lying and their untrue answers were longer and more detailed, meaning interviewers were less able to detect that they were telling porkies. PM David Cameron has previously attested to giving speeches on a full bladder.
On 1 December in Washington DC, the national science academies of the United States, China and Britain will host an international summit on gene editing, focussing on the safety and ethics of genetically engineering human “germ cells” to eliminate inherited illness – a development that will inevitably raise the prospect of creating genetically-enhanced “designer babies”.
Some experts have voiced concerns about the use of gene editing on human eggs and embryos, saying it will have unpredictable consequences on future generations, making it dangerous and ethically unacceptable.
However, Professor Church and many other scientists behind the development of a revolutionary gene-editing technology, called Crispr-Cas9, believe these concerns should not prevent research that could one day lead to effective treatments for crippling and incurable conditions, such as muscular dystrophy and Huntington’s disease.
Writing in the journal Nature, Professor Church said the ethical arguments against germ-line gene therapy – that it is unsafe, irreversible and fails to have the consent of the infant involved – do not stand up to scrutiny.
“Human germline editing is not special with respect to permanence or consent. Replacing deleterious versions of genes with common ones is unlikely to lead to unforeseen effects and is probably reversible. Even if the editing was difficult to reverse, this would not be especially unsafe compared with other commonly inherited risks,” Professor Church said.
As regards safety, the Crispr-Cas9 method appears to be remarkable accurate in its ability to “find and replace” precise segments of DNA, with an error rate of less than 1 in 300 trillion, Professor Church said. Other error-correcting techniques could reduce this rate still further, by tenfold at least, he said.
Prospective parents who are known to carry defective genes can at present be offered pre-natal genetic diagnosis to select IVF embryos that are free of familial mutations. But this option is not available in every situation where there is a risk of passing on defective genes and inherited disorders – such as a parent who is carrying two copies of a DNA defect.
Professor Church also dismissed fears that allowing germline gene therapy to treat inherited disorders will automatically lead down a “slippery slope” to genetic enhancement with “beneficial” traits, such as sporting prowess, intelligence or physical appearance.
“Those who want to ban human germline editing should also consider that such a move would do little to allay concerns about ethically dubious attempts to enhance humans,” Professor Church said.
“To think that there is not already a cadre of IVF clinicians poised to engage in such practices, perhaps even supported by governments, is to ignore, for example, the history of doping in sport,” he said.
“These kinds of ambitious individuals and institutions are unlikely to be dissuaded by an agreement made on their behalf by others with a different view,” he added.
Jennifer Doudna, a molecular and cell biologist at the University of California, Berkeley and a pioneer of Crispr-Cas9, said that a complete ban on germ-line gene therapy might prevent breakthroughs in some of the most distressing and difficult medical disorders.
However, Professor Doudna also said the time has not yet come to allow scientists to forge ahead with germ-line human engineering until more research has been done.
“Human germline editing for the purpose of creating genome-modified humans should not proceed at this time, partly because of the unknown social consequences, but also because the technology and our knowledge of the human genome are simply not ready to do so safely,” Professor Doudna.
Genome editing: What it offers:
Conventional gene-therapy: clinical trials are already planned or underway to develop a “functional cure” for HIV patients using modified T-cells, as well as for a genetic blood disorder called beta-thalassaemia
Germ-line gene therapy: by altering the genes of eggs or embryos, it might be possible to block the transmission of inherited diseases such as Huntington’s or muscular dystrophy to all subsequent generations within an affected family.
Animal organ transplants: scientists have eliminated viruses from within the genome of pigs using gene-editing techniques, enabling gene-edited pig organs potentially to be used in human transplant operations.