Beyond Designer Babies: Epigenetic Modification May Be the Next Game-Changer

Michael Bess – March 24, 2017

HORROR, EAGER ANTICIPATION, and every sentiment in between swirl around the prospect of designer babies. The most recent spate of articles, TED Talks, and conferences about the subject has been triggered by the discovery, announced in 2015, of a potent new method for modifying DNA — the CRISPR/Cas9 pathway. Biologists are elated about its heady potential for precisely modifying the genomes of organisms ranging from plants and animals to, yes, humans themselves. But while they’re elated, many of them are also wary because many of these modifications would be heritable; this innovation, they argue, may therefore warrant a moratorium so that societal and moral implications can be fully assessed.

Ongoing efforts at self-regulation among leading scientists in the field certainly deserve our respect and support. But what seems to have gone relatively unnoticed over the last decade is the development of a separate but equally potent pathway for genetically engineering — and thus redesigning — human bodies and minds: epigenetics. Over the coming decades, altering our kids’ DNA may not be the most appealing way to proceed. In fact, if the cutting-edge field of epigenetics fulfills its promise, the hoopla over designer babies may end up being misplaced.