The dawn of the age of the genetically fashionable

Spending a vacation with my mother is akin to a seminar on genetics, that is, my own genetic history. Relative to her own passion for actively tracing as far back as she can who is related to whom in our family, my interest cannot even be called a "garnish." She would even know the names of my great, great grandparents on my father's side, and this is made even more remarkable by the fact that my parents have been divorced since almost 40 years ago!

Her mixed parentage had its own very strange twists. Her father was pure Chinese and her mother was Filipina, but it was her mother who was raised Chinese and her father raised mostly Pinoy in his character and ways. That made for an extremely fascinating childhood for them – one that is worth an epic novel or film.  She has memories of how my ancestors looked, and had very interesting stories of how they impacted the lives of their times. I did spend a few days with her recently, and at her age of 71, she likes to tell stories about our family even more. During that time together, we teased about what seemed to be patterns across generations: an odd sense of humor, features of faces and physique, diabetes, a peculiar slant of intelligence, and phenomenal clumsiness (which I inherited). 

Genes are indeed a powerful thing. Recently, a scientific breakthrough, even before it was confirmed to be true, has already sent shockwaves among the members of the scientific community. He Jiankui is a scientist who claims to have made the world's first gene-edited babies. At least two things have been triggered because of this: one, independent verification by scientists, if indeed this is a valid scientific claim; and second, investigations as to the legal and ethical violations committed by He Jiankui and his colleagues.

But as we await the outcome of those investigations, what do we know so far?

He Jiankui claims to have found a way to remove a gene in the baby inside the womb so that the baby will not have the gene that opens up the door for HIV infections through the blood. 

How could this even be possible? 

First, you have to know what a gene is. A gene is a sequence of DNA, and DNA is in turn, a set of molecules with 4 base pairs. How DNA is arranged in certain sequences account for the things that make up who you are – from your looks, your susceptibility to certain illnesses, your vulnerability to certain conditions, to longevity. 

Second, you have to know that in 2000, scientists have mapped the human genome. This means that they worked to see the general picture of a layout of the genes of a representative human – an estimate of the number of genes, and a very general perspective of what those genes are for. This is not, by any measure, an accurate and detailed map. This is because up to now, scientists are revising the number of genes that make up a human. We are still finding out what those many genes code for in our makeup, since there is no one gene for anything, and also because one gene can contribute to many traits and susceptibilities. Scientists have since been building knowledge on some of the genes and what they are for. Among those many genes, one is CCR5, which has been found to open the cells for HIV infection to enter the body. 

Third, you have to have a tool to search that gene and disable it. The tool, CRISPR-Cas9, came out of a discovery done from basic research as to how bacteria fights viral infections. CRISPR stands for "Clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats" – a special spot in the DNA of bacteria that keeps a record of viral attacks and how to fight them off – a very cool immune system.  Scientists also discovered that there is a special gene, CAS-9, that can act not just as a precise detector of the gene being searched, but also as surgical scissors to snip it off. So if the CRISPR can be the "server" and "vessel" on which the Cas9 can ride to find the targeted gene, it can take out the unwanted gene and also replace it with another. Many scientists were responsible for the discovery of CRISPR and Cas9, but the making of the CRISPR-Cas9 tool made it possible for researchers to experiment on gene-editing so efficiently. 

So that's how Jianku He did it. He knew a little about CCR5 – that it opens the cells for HIV infections – and decided that the genes of the twin girls will not have CCR5. And because these edits have been made in the babies' genes, they will be passed on to their offspring. 

This is one of those episodes when science goes wrong. Even the scientific community who hailed the discovery of CRISPR in bacteria and the crafting of the CRISPR-Cas9 as a tool for gene-editing is generally in an uproar because they know that we do not know enough about the effects of gene-editing in the long run to actually do it on live human babies. And in science, "not knowing enough" could be a very dangerous thing. We do not even know all the genes that make us up and all the things that each gene does, more so what they do together in clusters. What if removing CCR5 disables a cluster of genes that is responsible for some reason for another aspect of human health and development? Why should a scientist decide on the trade-off to be done on the outcome of a human life in terms of its genetic makeup?

Most abominably, this proves that if we can do it with any gene – the one known for certain traits – then we can do it with others. Instead of the wonderful complexity, diversity, and uncertainty of the mix of genes we inherit, our parents, or you as a parent, or anyone who controls the birth of humans, could manipulate the genetic makeup of babies. They can come up with their own classification of what traits are desirable or not, and target the deletion or insertion of those genes that account for those traits. Of course, it can also bring in positive outcomes, but in this case, the hellish scenarios that come with it are really unacceptable if we are to keep our humanity, which shines in its diversity. 

What He Jiankui has done is the genetic version of the "like" game on social media. Horribly, it could be the currency that defines the value of human life – whether you have the genes that are "liked" or not. Biology could now become a game of "likes," far from the Casino Royale of luck that has marked our ancestry before this. Thumbs down from this human for this science that has gone wrong. – Rappler.com

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at sciencesolitaire@gmail.com.