Designer Babies Born on Mars

WHATEVER FUTURE YOU are imagining for the human race, no matter how dark or bright, I guarantee you it’s going to be far weirder than you think.

“You mean weird like designer babies born on Mars?”

Yeah, like that, but probably even weirder. But let’s first talk about designer babies.

Back in November of last year, the world’s first genetically edited babies (twin girls) were born in China. The girls genes were edited by a Chinese researcher using CRISPR. If, like me, you pictured CRISPR being some sort of high-tech scientific microwave oven that modifies genes by cooking them, you’d be very wrong. CRISPR, which is the toasty sounding acronym for the more boring “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats”, is a molecular tool that consists of two parts: a Cas9 enzyme that cuts through DNA like a pair of molecular scissors and a RNA molecule that directs the Cas9 to the target DNA sequence to be cut.

The Chinese doctor, He Jiankui, who did the gene editing, said he used CRISPR to disable the CCR5 gene in two embryos during a standard in vitro fertilization (IVF) process. CCR5 is the gene that is capable of forming the specific protein that allows HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, to enter a cell.

In short, He and his team genetically engineered the twin girls to be HIV resistant.

“I feel a strong responsibility that it’s not just to make a first, but also make it an example,” He said in an interview. “Society will decide what to do next.”

According to the results of a 2018 Chinese public opinion survey conducted by Sun Yat-Sen University, “The Chinese public broadly supports therapeutic use of gene editing in adults and children. The vast majority reject gene editing’s use for conditions that are not genetic or for non-medical purposes, such as to enhance IQ or athletic abilities.”

Americans have similar opinions on gene editing according to a 2018 public opinion survey conducted by the Pew Research Center: “A majority of Americans support the idea of using gene editing with the goal of delivering direct health benefits for babies, but at the same time, a majority considers the use of such techniques to boost a baby’s intelligence something that takes technology ‘too far’.”

Some in the science community called the experiment “far too premature” and “an unconscionable experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible.” Others said it was “justifiable” as it sought a solution to the growing world-wide health threat of HIV.

“Once a technology is admitted [to culture], it plays out its hand; it does what it is designed to do,” wrote the late author Neil Postman in his book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. “Our task is to understand what that design is — that is to say, when we admit a new technology to the culture, we must do so with our eyes wide open.”

Gene editing is a technology designed to re-engineer humans. It enables us to directly and rapidly change our evolutionary path.

Currently, InSight and NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars’ past and present ability to sustain microbial life, are the only two operational exploration vehicles on Mars.

They will soon be joined by more exploratory robots and then eventually by human explorers.

In the epilogue of his new book Laika’s Window: The Legacy of a Soviet Space Dog, author Kurt Caswell has this to say about our drive to go to Mars: “The human animal needs, always, a new frontier to push against. We need to explore to remain whole — physically, emotionally, psychologically. Maybe even spiritually. Going to Mars is not for everyone, but everyone will be struck with awe and amazement when we do. Nothing good will come of a suppression of human desire…Restraint is not the way. The way is expression, release, liberty, Mars.”

If we don’t destroy ourselves and planet Earth, we will most certainly send a crewed mission to Mars. Some of these early explorers will likely die trying to get there as was the fate of many early explorers attempting to reach the New World. But through continued advances in technology, we will persevere and in the deep future our descendants will populate Mars.

They will be from us but not like us. Through gene editing and further integration with other advanced technologies, they will be bio-engineered to better withstand the challenges of space travel and the harsh environment of Mars. The planet itself, which has a about a ⅓ less gravity than Earth, will transform them even further.

They will be different from us, evolved from homo sapiens but no longer human like you and me. They will have originated on Earth, but will no longer be Earthlings. They will be something far weirder than we can currently imagine.

They will be the first Martians and we will have created them.

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Scott Dewing

Scott Dewing is a technologist, teacher, and writer. He was born the same year the Internet was invented. This does not make him special— just old.