Genetic Engineering in Humans on the Germline

We now have 3 genetic engineering companies that have had an IPO and which you can now invest in; Editas Medicine (NASDAQ:EDIT), Intellia Therapeutics (NASDAQ:NTLA), and CRISPR Therapeutics (NASDAQ:CRSP). Sure, they’re involved in “gene editing” but the label of “genetic engineering” is much more appropriate for this article because we’re going to talk about something that makes people feel uncomfortable. We’re going to talk about genetic engineering in humans, in particular, we’re going to talk about germline genetic engineering which we can now do using the gene editing technologies offered by all 3 of these companies. “Germline” is a term used to refer to the source of DNA for all other cells in the body. When performing genetic engineering at the germline level in humans, it’s pretty much the equivalent of genetically modifying our food to promote superior traits except the ethical implications are far greater.

3 Stages of Genetic Engineering in Humans

Putting our ethics aside for a moment, here’s how we see that timeline progressing in 3 stages:

  1. Gene editing is first used to genetically engineer embryos such that inherited diseases including cancer are made extinct.
  2. Genetic engineering is then used to modify genetic traits that inhibit intelligence, starting with mental retardation, and move to traits that advance intelligence
  3. Genetic engineering is finally used to create “designer babies” that look more visually appealing perhaps also removing the mythical fat gene.

How thrilled is the general population about this sort of genetic engineering in humans? This thrilled:

genetic engineering humans germline

Source: MIT

So almost 50% of people think that it’s okay to go mucking around and editing our germline as a species. The Chinese have already started researching this area though everyone was up in arms over it. That’s crazy to think about. Right now we are on the cusp of an era where we can essentially start to play God. We’re already creating synthetic organisms at a massive scale. We’re doing things like taking bacteria and genetically modifying them so that they literally “sweat” biofuels. We’ve create an army of robots driven by artificial intelligence that are genetically modifying organism to save companies 10s of millions of dollars a year. We’re pretty sure that Stage 1 will eventually happen because disease is bad, right?  The future seems bright and the opportunities endless.

Is Intelligence Hereditary

Let’s just skip right past where we decide to use gene editing to make hereditary diseases extinct. Now let’s turn our attention to Stage 2 which is gene editing in humans for the purpose of increasing intelligence. Let’s presume that society has accepted the use of genetic engineering in humans to cure diseases and then we move on to mental retardation. Since we’ve crossed that hurdle, do we now look at genetically modifying humans who may have an IQ that falls below a particular level? The first question to ask is, “Is Intelligence Hereditary” which is answered in an article by the Scientific American. Robert Plomin, a deputy director of the MRC Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Center at King’s College London, responds with the following:
Scientists have investigated this question for more than a century, and the answer is clear: the differences between people on intelligence tests are substantially the result of genetic differences.

We can already sense that this is starting to make some people uncomfortable so we’re going to up the ante and supplement this with a controversial paper that suggests that Ashkenazi Jews are far more intelligent than the average population. Some anthropology professors at the University of Utah authored a 2005 research report titled “Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence” which stated that their subjects “scored .75 to 1.0 standard deviations above the general European average, corresponding to an IQ of 112-115”. As it turns out, a Jewish average IQ of 115 is 8 points higher than the generally accepted IQ of their closest rivals—Northeast Asians—and approximately 40% higher than the global average IQ of 79.1.

Now you can read this study and walk away with your own conclusions, but the point is that this opens up a huge can of worms. If that study is true, then there are going to be other groups of humans that are going to be less intelligent than everyone else. Is that racist to study whether or not some cultures could be more intelligent than others based on genetic differences? No, it isn’t. It’s a fascinating topic and we’re just going to throw that out there for you to think about. It’s very relevant to this discussion because when we start to look at the contributions of genetics to intelligence, some of these topics are going to pop up and make people uncomfortable. If we actually start to modify the germline to increase intelligence, let’s just say that Stage 3 is probably inevitable. You’ve been warned.

Where Are We at Today?

Right now, the only progress (if you can call it that) that has been made towards genetic engineering in humans is the example we gave earlier of the Chinese dabbling in this area last year and continuing into this year. However, as investors we need to be aware of these trends by thinking 10 steps ahead of where emerging technologies are at today. We need to understand that at some point in time, society will need to decide whether or not to impose a moratorium on genetic engineering in humans at the germline level. Maybe the U.S. imposes such a rule but the Chinese decide not to. What then? There are at least a handful of countries in this world that have the skill sets for people to do this without anyone even knowing. Those 15% of people who think that genetically engineering human babies to make them more intelligent are probably gong to have that option one day and they’re likely to take it.

We’ve raised this topic because we think it is incredibly relevant for investors who buy gene editing stocks like Editas, Crispr, and Intellia Therapeutics. What’s at stake here is a lot more than just ensuring your comfortable retirement, should these any one of these stocks turn out to be “the next Microsoft”. We’re particularly interested to hear from investors what they think about genetic engineering in humans. Would you invest in a company that was involved in such a thing? Would you do it for your future children if you thought it would give them a better life? Even if everyone else was doing it? Drop us some of your deep thoughts on this topic in the comments section below.

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  • jack murphy

    This stuff has to be banned before we recreate the genocidal horror of last century. Soon it will be considered neglect to allow a child to be born with dark skin.

    Support a global ban on GMO humans!

    • Nanalyze

      Thank you for the comment Jack. We’re with you on supporting a ban for genetically modifying the human germline.

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