Science-fiction film ‘Guardians of the Galaxies Vol. 2’ features an advanced, self-righteous, humanoid species known as the ‘Sovereign’ that seems to implement population-wide genetic engineering. Ayesha, the Golden High Priestess of the Sovereign explains:
“Every citizen is born exactly as designed by the community. Impeccable, both physically and mentally. We control the DNA of our progeny, germinating them in birthing pods.”
The process by which the Sovereign community “designs” citizens is questionable; however the idea of using genetic engineering to improve a species may actually be implementable (via germline engineering), and might even be a good idea.
One of the main objections to custom human germline engineering is that it would be expensive, and therefore only be available to the elite few, thereby widening the social divide. Another issue is that germline engineering would facilitate a ‘designer baby’ movement. We can bypass these issue by allowing scientists and society to decide on a specific set of genetic mutations, and then roll out these mutations across the entire population.
The chosen mutations would have to have clear benefits to humanity. They would need to improve the quality of life of individuals without producing any direct negative effects. To ensure that the mutations would produce the desired effect, we could use existing mutations that are currently present in a small number of individuals.
With the help of germline engineering we could:
- Eliminate hundreds of genetic conditions.
- Get by with less sleep – a mutation called DEC2 allows individuals to function normally with less than 6 hours of sleep per night as opposed to the average 7-9.
- Avoid broken bones – this mutation gives individuals an increased bone density, which makes them susceptible to broken bones and fractures.
- Reduce the risk of heart attacks – The PCSK9 mutation was discovered in a few African people who have extremely low levels of LDL cholesterol (‘bad’ cholesterol’). With less ‘bad’ cholesterol, these individuals develop plaques less readily and are at less risk of having a heart attack.
All of these mutations sound great, but given the current social stance towards germline editing: it doesn’t look like we’ll be implementing population-wide editing any time soon. The human genome is like a toddler. It’s acceptable to show a healthy level of interest; but if you start fiddling around with it people are going to respond negatively.
As with most major societal changes, genetic engineering is going to take time to be accepted and implemented. It may be a while before we turn ourselves into superior golden beings.