I just finished listening on my Chirp app to Eric Martin narrating Hacking Darwin written by Jamie Metzl.1 I’m glad to find someone publishing the obvious, that genetic modification of all types of organisms from plants and animals to humans, will happen no matter what restrictions we put on the related technologies, such as bans on stem cell harvesting from embryos or enforced requirements for GMO labeling. All we can do is work as individuals, nations, and as an international community, to create enforceable regulations shared by all countries. I also agree with Metzl, that building such an international consensus and regulatory body with the power to discipline violations, is a daunting task. Current experience with the World Health Organization’s efforts with international consensus and transparency regarding controlling the spread of microorganisms like SARS-CoV2, shows how, a relatively simple idea about sharing of information can breakdown at an international level, and make international agencies ineffective. The alternative is free reign of agents of genetic manipulation, including individuals, companies and governments, and that is a scary concept after reading Metzl’s book.
I found compelling Metzl’s perspective that we are in a genetics arms race. While the U.S. and Europe restrict technology for genetic manipulation, China has few restrictions. Furthermore, China is growing its investment in genetic technology by 15% each year, and is now only second to the investment made by the U.S., which is growing its share much slower. It won’t be long before China is finding ways to incorporate genes into embryos for in vitro fertilization (IVF), which make their descendants better able to win in international sports competitions, and even in wars, both boots on the ground wars and cyber wars.
For those who do not know what the genetics game is about, Metzl provides plenty of background going in and out of a hypothetical example of a woman going multiple times to an IVF clinic to have a baby 10 and 20 years in the future. Metzl explains some of the easier decisions she will have, like whether she would choose the embryos that do not have cystic fibrosis or Huntington’s genes, to decisions that involve more ethical considerations, like whether she wants a child with genes that make the child better at running. Metzl also goes into some depth describing the feasibility of some of these future decisions, and he explains how IVF clinics already have the ability to provide potential mothers with some of these options. He also points out how women in China, are already having more IVF babies than women in the U.S.A. He does this by pointing out the number of IVF clinics per million people in China, compared to that number in the U.S.A. The difference is shocking, and clearly exemplifies that a genetics arms race is already in progress.
Metzl proposes that a major international initiative is needed. He points out that the United Kingdom already has a Human Fertilization and Embryo Authority (HFEA) which gives licenses to IVF clinics and inspects those clinics to ensure that they follow a Code of Practice.2 His advice is that this issue needs the attention of every individual, and that they should do what they can to contribute to the developing policies around genetic modification of embryos, and genetic manipulation of gonad cells that can pass that genetics on to their children.
I have previously written that it is important that we get more involved in regulatory decisions, and Metzl is affirming that statement. The next piece I write will be a message to President Biden, copying my representatives in Congress, that we need an organization like the HFEA in the U.S.A., and we should not delay even another year. You can access my Letter to the U.S. President on Genetic Modification here.
- Metzl, Jamie. Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity. 1st Edition. Sourcebooks, 2019.
- “Code of Practice.” Human Fertilization and Embryo Authority, December 3, 2019. https://portal.hfea.gov.uk/media/1605/2019-12-03-code-of-practice-december-2019.pdf.