Ready or not, the arrival of a generation of gene-edited humans that will dominate competitive sports and many other aspects of life are on their way, possibly in the next two or three years. Or they may just turn out to be freakishly deformed mutants. One or the other.
That seems to be the message coming from a group of researchers at Arizona State University, in a piece published this week at Slate. They’re talking about the use of CRISPR technology to edit human beings prior to the mother being impregnated. With the right technique, this could produce physically superior children that will grow up to dominate the world of sports. Or perhaps not.
New technologies can help athletes push boundaries and test physical limits. Sometimes, they challenge deeply held notions about the “spirit of sport” and what it means to compete on a fair and equitable playing field. In the past decade, we’ve seen debates over the fairness of everything from cutting-edge swimwear to “running blades.”
But those technologies may seem like nothing compared with fast-approaching methods of using tools like CRISPR, a method of genetic editing, to design future athletes. With the taboo on human gene editing in the process of being shattered, children whose genomes have been modified before birth in order to give them a competitive advantage later in life could be born in the next few years. Some of these individuals could conceivably be of age to compete in the 2040 Olympics.
The authors focus primarily on the danger of countries violating accepted protocol in this science (such as not editing human beings) to produce state-sponsored athletes that would go on to dominate the Olympics and even professional sports. But there are plenty of other aspects of life where those who are created using this technology could end up having dominant advantages over all of you store brand people who are walking around with random genetic configurations.
Imagine what happens when we figure out which combination of genes controls the natural aging process and find a few switches to flip that will slow or even halt that progression. Some “special” people will have vast lifespans while everyone else is dying off at the usual rate. A library of dystopian science fiction novels have been written base on precisely that scenario and it never ends well.
But are such advancements really that close? People discussing such things these days frequently bring up that Chinese doctor who edited the genes of twin baby girls to make them immune to HIV. But the part of the story that doesn’t get nearly as much attention in the news is the fact that the experiment failed. The girls did not turn out to be immune to HIV and, in fact, may be showing signs of unintended mutations that can’t possibly be beneficial.
The fact is that gene editing is hard work and CRISPR isn’t nearly good enough to do precisely what you want to a specific gene or set of genes without some collateral damage going on. It’s an extremely useful tool in genetic research for use on lab animals, but it’s not safe for mass tinkering on human subjects. Also, there’s still so much we don’t know about how various genes interact with others, or turn on and off over the course of our lives.
That’s why I was rather nervous about the doctor I wrote about previously who thinks he can make everyone immune to all viruses and genetically inherited diseases. His eugenics-based dating service is scary enough by itself, but at least that system still relies on natural reproduction. But if he’s going to be doing gene editing to deliver on these promises, we seem to have a long way to go before we start testing such things on humans. (If we ever do.)
Again, I’m not trying to shut down scientific research. We should always be seeking to expand our knowledge. But when it comes to tinkering around with the human genome, it just seems like this science is still in its infancy. And there is just so much that could go wrong through the law of unintended consequences.