In 2001, a study(1) announcing the successful birth of the world’s first genetically engineered babies—30 in total—was published. This staggering development didn’t receive media attention until nearly a decade later.
The children were created using genes from TWO women and one man—a process referred to as ooplasmic transplantation, in which genes from a female donor are inserted into another woman’s eggs before being fertilized with a man’s sperm.
What the ramifications of having the genetic traits of three parents might be for the individual, or for their subsequent offspring, is still unknown.
However, based on what I’ve learned about the genetic engineering of plants, I’m inclined to say the consequences could be vast, dire, and most likely completely unexpected.
In fact, it only took two years for follow-up reports to begin discussing problems encountered in these genetically engineered babies. According to one such report:(2)
“A frank follow-up of ooplasmic transplantation pregnancies and infants reports that two out of 17 fetuses had an abnormal 45, XO karyotype. The authors assume the hypothesis of a link between chromosomal anomalies and oocytes manipulation, and reveal that one of the babies has been diagnosed at 18 months with Pervasive Developmental Disorder, a spectrum of autism-related diagnoses.”
Despite such risks, and the lack of public discussion about these kinds of ventures, genetic scientists are steadily forging ahead, bringing us ever closer to the reality of “designer babies”—children born with traits predetermined by the parents’ choice.
As a matter of fact, the genetic modification of humans appears to have been running alongside the genetic engineering of plants, being just a few years behind in terms of the technology being unleashed. The lack of proper evaluation of health effects is apparently on par as well, which is to say near non-existent.
Are ‘Design-A-Baby’ Centers Next?
As recently reported by BBC News,(3) a US patent has been filed for a DNA testing database, which would be used by prospective parents to find out which traits their future offspring might inherit. Critics call it “ethically and socially treacherous,” and I’m inclined to agree. According to the featured article:
“23andMe says its Family Traits Inheritor Calculator can predict the risk of inheriting specific diseases as well as details such as height, weight, eye color and even personality. Couples send the firm a saliva sample to see what their babies might be like.
… But critics remain concerned that such technology could be misused. ‘It would be highly irresponsible for 23andMe or anyone else to offer a product or service based on this patent,’ said Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society… ‘We believe the patent office made a serious mistake in allowing a patent that includes drop-down menus for which to choose a future child’s traits.’”
Could Humans Eventually Become Patented Property?
One nightmarish scenario humanity might be faced with, should genetic engineering and designing of humans continue unchecked, is the potential for a patent war; meaning these genetically engineered humans could become patentable property.
You bet! But it’s not outside the realm of possibility. The world is already embroiled in discussions about which genetically engineered life forms can and cannot be patented,(4) and biotech companies have secured patents on everything from genetically modified seeds to engineered animals of various kinds.
Furthermore, as of 2005, nearly 20 percent of human genes were already patented,(5) and are explicitly claimed as intellectual property by one company or another. Unchallenged, what’s to stop a company from eventually claiming patent rights on an entire individual?
In an effort to put the brakes on this disturbing trend, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)(6) has sued the US Patent and Trademark Office to stop the practice of issuing patents that are contrary to the law—which states that only inventions can be patented; not naturally-occurring parts of the human body. As explained by the ACLU:(7)
“For example, Myriad Genetics, a private biotechnology company based in Utah, controls patents on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes [two genes associated with hereditary breast and ovarian cancer]. Because of its patents, Myriad has the right to prevent anyone else from testing, studying, or even looking at these genes. It also holds the exclusive rights to any mutations along those genes. No one is allowed to do anything with the BRCA genes without Myriad’s permission.”
Thankfully, on June 13 this year, the US Supreme Court unanimously invalidated the patents on BRCA 1 and BRCA 2—an important victory in the fight to reclaim our genes.(8) But we still have a long way to go. Patenting of seeds, for example, is just as hazardous to the future of mankind as the patenting of human genes.
One Human, Multiple Genomes
Genetic research is of course important, and has revealed some very interesting misconceptions. Unfortunately, many scientists fail to take such findings into account. One example is the genetic engineering of plants, which are considered to be “equivalent” to conventional varieties even though there are in fact vast differences.
For example, genetically engineered plants typically end up producing novel proteins that have never existed in the food supply before, courtesy of the new genetic material that has been inserted.
The increased use of GE crops in the American food supply is one explanation for the dramatic uptick in food allergies and gastrointestinal problems over the past two decades.
The Human Genome Project, which was completed in 2003, discovered that we have nowhere near enough genes to account for all the biological functions in the human body, and the reason for this is because genes do not operate as previously predicted. In a nutshell, having a “cancer program” in your DNA does not automatically mean you’re destined to get cancer. Far from it, because simply having the genetic information does not mean it will be expressed.
As it turns out, any given gene can create and encode tens of thousands of different proteins, and it is these proteins that dictate cell function. What’s most important here is that the types of proteins encoded is dependent on the environment in which the cell finds itself.
In fact, the epigenetic influences appear to be most powerful. These are the factors that cause your genes to actually be expressed and produce the proteins they encode for. A toxic environment will cause a gene to produce different proteins than a non-toxic environment for example.
That said, according to more recent research,(9) the picture is likely even more complex. Researchers have now discovered that while each person has one major genome, on the cellular level you can have multiple different genomes, depending on the tissue. As stated in a recent Science Magazine interview with the author of the study, James Lupski:(10, 11)
“[R]esearchers have come to realize that we are made up of a mosaic of cells—populations of cells with different versions of the genome, present in varying degrees in different tissues.
A few base pair changes, a few extra copies of a repetitive sequence—these things seem small on the scale of three billion base pairs, but it does mean that there is no ‘true you’ spelled out in your genes, and it also means that these slight differences could impact development and health… ‘So certainly, if you’re looking at the blood, it doesn’t tell you what’s going on in the brain,’ [says James Lupski].
Interestingly enough, genome mosaicism does not necessarily equate to disease. In fact, in his paper(12) Lupski states that mosaicism has also been found in healthy tissues, and may even play a role in the normal functioning of cells. Mosaicism also comes into play when you’re talking about hereditary diseases, which makes the idea of creating “designer babies” all the more daunting and fraught with unforeseen risks. In his paper, Lupski writes:
“Mosaicism and risk for recurrence in offspring may also relate to the time in embryo-genesis at which the de novo mutational event occurred. If the parent is germline mosaic, he or she is at risk for a recurrence of another child with the disease.
…From a diagnostics standpoint, it is important to realize that genome analyses reflect the average genome of the cells one examines. Thus, for chorionic villus sampling, an abnormality observed may represent confined placental mosaicism. When performing karyotype analysis from a blood sample, only cells stimulated to grow are assayed for chromosomes, whereas total DNA isolated from white blood cells comes from more cell types and thus may detect mosaicism. However, none of these approaches informs on the presence of mosaicism in the brain or other tissues and organs.”
Your Genes Do Not Predetermine Your Health
The major problem with believing the myth that your genes control your life is that you become a victim of your heredity. Since you can’t change your genes, it essentially means that your life is predetermined, and therefore you have very little control over your health. Quelling such fears is what “designer babies” is all about—the idea that you can safeguard your offspring from certain health risks. (Of course, taken to an extreme, such fantasies also include the ability to design a child that has specifically chosen physical and mental characteristics, and perhaps even specific personality traits.)
But the new science, oftentimes referred to as epigenetics, reveals that you are in fact an extension of your environment, which includes everything from your thoughts and belief systems, to toxic exposures and exposure to sunlight, exercise, and, of course, everything you choose to put onto and into your body.
Rather than looking for a way to “design” healthier humans through genetic manipulation, it would make far more sense to address our environment, including our food supply, instead—so that everyone, whether we’re “custom made” or not, can thrive and be the healthiest version of ourselves that we can be.
Science has now taken us far beyond Newtonian physics, which says you live in a mechanical universe. Your body is NOT just a biological machine whose health can be modified by altering the parts of the machine. Unfortunately, conventional science is being slow on the uptake of these facts, and the entire pharmaceutical paradigm is still rooted in the Newtonian view of the body as a biological machine. As such, your body is thought to respond to physical “things” like the active chemicals in drugs, and by adjusting the drugs that modify your machinery, doctors can modify and control health.
However, as biophysics and quantum physics shows us that the invisible, immaterial realm is actually far more important than the material realm, so your immaterial thoughts may actually shape your biological environment and genetic expression to a greater degree than a drug…
Unfortunately, as a general broad-strokes rule, it seems few scientists fond of gene-tinkering have a well-rounded or holistic view of living organisms, opting instead to view the human body as a machine. And as demonstrated with the multi-varied problems that have arisen from genetically engineered foods—from the development of superweeds and superpests, to the creation of a never-before-seen organism now linked to miscarriage and infertility—such a view is bound to lead you to the wrong conclusions.
Patenting of Seeds Threaten Biodiversity and the Future of Mankind
Over the past 18 years or so, a collection of five giant biotech and chemical corporations — Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, Dow and DuPont — have bought up more than 200 other companies, allowing them to dominate access to seeds. The enormous ramifications of this should be fairly obvious.
For starters, the takeover has been so dramatic that it’s difficult for farmers to find alternatives. As a result, 90 percent of soybeans grown in the US are genetically engineered, and many conventional farmers have trouble obtaining non-genetically modified seeds. Genetically engineered (GE) seeds, particularly corn and soy, have now taken over in many areas of the world, effectively eliminating the use of conventional and “heirloom” seeds, and along with them, the ancient, sustainable farming practices that produces healthful food.
What’s worse, besides patenting their own GE seeds, Monsanto has also succeeded in slapping patents on a large number of common crop seeds, in essence patenting life forms for the first time — without a single vote of the people or Congress. By doing this, Monsanto has become the sole owner of many of the very seeds necessary to support the world’s food supply… an incredibly powerful position for any company to be in.
One solution to this growing problem would be to make patenting seeds, plants, and genes illegal. As it stands now, each genetically engineered seed is patented and sold under exclusive rights. Therefore, farmers must purchase the GE seeds anew each year, because saving seeds is considered to be patent infringement. Anyone who does save GE seeds must pay a license fee to actually re-sow them. This, of course, results in higher prices and reduced product options.
Add in the increased need for pesticides and herbicides like Roundup that GE crops require, and the ever rising cost of these products, and what you end up with is a far more expensive crop that has the potential to not only fail more frequently than conventional crops, but that can also be extremely harmful to the animals and humans who eat them.
Even the NY Times Is Becoming Concerned About Monsanto
I’ve written extensively about the health hazards and environmental harm caused by glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup. The New York Times(13) also recently addressed the issue:
“‘Because glyphosate moves into the soil from the plant, it seems to affect the rhizosphere, the ecology around the root zone, which in turn can affect plant health,’ said Robert Kremer, a scientist at the United States Agriculture Department, who has studied the impact of glyphosate on soybeans for more than a decade and has warned of the herbicide’s impact on soil health. Like the human microbiome, the plants’ roots systems rely on a complex system of bacteria, fungi and minerals in the soil. The combination, in the right balance, helps protect the crops from diseases and improves photosynthesis.
In some studies, scientists have found that a big selling point for the pesticide — that it binds tightly to minerals in the soil, like calcium, boron and manganese, thus preventing runoff — also means it competes with plants for those nutrients. Other research indicates that glyphosate can alter the mix of bacteria and fungi that interact with plant root systems, making them more susceptible to parasites and pathogens.”
Other Life Forms Potentially Slated for Patenting: Soil Microbes
Incredibly, the NY Times article also actually hints at the possibility of engineering soil microbes to “make up” for the detrimental effects of Roundup! Earlier this year, Monsanto purchased “select assets” of Agradis,(14) a “sustainable agricultural solutions” company founded by J. Craig Venter, a scientist who sequenced the human genome to develop various microbes and “agricultural biologicals.” Monsanto also acquired a collection of Venter’s microbes.
According to Monsanto’s chief technology officer Robert Fraley, “the foray into microbes… is to improve yield and address some of the issues raised about glyphosate.” What the future might hold if they actually go so far as to tinker with genetically engineered soil microbes is anyone’s guess. But I’m betting it won’t be good.
Why GMO Labeling Is a Must
All in all, it should be quite clear that mankind has ventured into some very deep waters in our quest to master nature. As a result, private companies have laid claim to numerous life forms from various kingdoms, including human genes. Unless this trend is halted, we may end up with a world in which corporate entities own quite literally everything—from soil microbes to individual humans. It sounds inconceivable, and yet this is the reality we’re already in; it’s just a matter of degree, really.
While the obstacles may appear near-insurmountable, I urge you to not fall into despair, but rather to join forces with those who are actively working to protect life, in all its forms, from corporate takeover. There are many such organizations and projects. At this very moment, I would encourage you to engage in the efforts to get genetically engineered foods labeled in the US.
This is an absolutely crucial component of reining in the corporate takeover of agriculture. Without labels, you cannot know what you’re buying. And unless consumer demand calls for other types of foods besides genetically engineered varieties, farmers do not have any incentive to plant them since so few food companies currently buy non-GE crops. This issue will become even more important once genetically engineered food animals are introduced. So please, support the efforts to get genetically modified organisms (GMOs) labeled.
[-] Sources and References
1 Human Reproduction 2001: 16(3); 513-516
2 Cytoplasmic Transfer: The Risks?
3 BBC News October 3, 2013
4 Patenting in Biotechnology – An Overview
5 American Civil Liberties Union, BRCA: Genes and Patents
6 See ref 5
7 See ref 5
8 American Civil Liberties Union BRCA FAQs
9 Science 26 July 2013: 341(6144); 358-359
10 Science Podcast: 26 July Show
11 Science Magazine Podcast Transcript July 26, 2013
12 Science 26 July 2013: 341(6144); 358-359
13 New York Times September 19, 2013
14 Themotleyfool.com January 30, 2013