Decoding Design

When biologists become designers of humans, then what?

When biologists become designers of humans, then what?

Posting in Design

As the tools and knowledge base for engineering genetic codes advance, the tools for designing the end product have limited usefulness.

Scientific American's Oscillator blog on Tuesday ran a thought-provoking piece by biological designer Christina Agapakis that ponders the possibilities around genetically engineering humans and "optimizing" children.

(First, a note that by biological designer, we mean that Agapakis is a post-doc research fellow at UCLA who researches synthetic biology, bioenergy, social studies of science, and art-and-science. In other words, she uses both sides of her brain with aplomb.)

Her muse was a somewhat chilling report from a the current Techonomy conference called "For Synthetic Biologists, the Lab is the Place to Procreate," about a talk that Singularity University bioinformatics and biotechnology co-chair Andrew Hessel gave on the inevitability of our ability to essentially make people. As if it were like, and as easy as, programming software.

But that's not really the chilling part. That comes when Hessel talks about how, despite having a vasectomy as a young adult, he's now ready to rear. So he'll make him (her? it?) in the lab.

This is Hessel's deal. He's a genetic engineer and evangelist for pushing genetic engineering's boundaries. He and Singularity University are all about disruptive technology and he thinks being able to boot up a genome from scratch is a "really cool science project." (Go to about 30:00.)

When speaking to a business or technology-focused audience, his message is basically that genetic engineering is growing into a massive generator of not just life, but also wealth (though the financial impact of the mapping of the human genome has been called into question).

Mobile phones equipped with genome decoders are coming. DIY fabricators that work with cells are already here. Great, but it's hard to detect any sense of governance.

Hessel's not exactly the poster child for the whole synthetic biology community, though, says Agapakis: "He speaks as a promoter of synthetic biology technology, but he certainly doesn’t speak on behalf of all synthetic biologists, and most definitely not when he’s talking about synthetic babies."

Still, the cost barriers around genetic engineering are, in fact, falling, and what are essentially life-form design tools are increasingly accessible.

So then what?

This is the kernel of Agapakis' piece. Even if a infertile scientist decides it's time to cook up a baby, and furthermore wants to "optimize" it for a set of characteristics, surely those design tools are only useful up to a point.

She writes:

Would an engineered baby be able to have an “optimized childhood”? What is an “optimal” child? Who gets to decide what kind of “edits” will be made to the genome? What happens to the “failed” experiments? What kind of life does an experiment have in the first place? Hessel says that synthetic biology will make cloning seem “organic,” but the debates over human cloning have left us with some clear ethical boundaries about what experiments on humans are acceptable, boundaries that still hold in light of new technologies.

In the end, she concludes, there's no way to optimize a childhood, or a human life. Check out her full post here.

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure