Geneticists Getting Close to Engineering Good Looks

What got us to this point is a series of achievements -- call them "breakthroughs" if you want to use that overworked word -- in laboratory experiments. Just five years ago one major report indicated these achievements were probably still a long ways down the road.

Scientists in various labs have produced genetically modified mice by altering the sperm used to fertilize the eggs, creating succeeding generations of modified mice. Some stronger, some bigger, some faster. Some lab animals have even been given the gene for green fluorescent protein that makes them glow in the dark.

Thus germline modification has now been shown to be possible in lab animals, but not yet in humans. But scientists have been able to genetically modify human stem cells, according to the center's report, and that could be another major step toward germline modification.

So what do the folks out there think about all of this?

In an effort to measure public attitudes, the center surveyed 4,834 Americans and found that most (57 percent) approve of the technology if it is used to improve human health, while only 19 percent approve using it for "enhancement."

It's likely those numbers will change dramatically in the coming months if this subject gets the kind of attention it deserves.

Enhancement, or making our offspring what we wish we were like, is where the big bucks will be found, and don't expect your insurance company to pay for it. So only rich people will be able to have the kind of babies they want, but they better be ready for surprises. Instead of blue eyes, they may wind up with a baby that glows in the dark.

Society Shaping

This is, of course, not the first time that humans have dabbled with changing future generations.

The most chilling section of the center's report describes "eugenics," a term coined by Sir Francis Galton in the late 19th century to refer to the "study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations."

Galton believed that many of the attributes required for success were inheritable, and that led to various eugenics movements as people sought to encourage gifted parents to have more children, and discourage some from having any.

"Many states enacted laws permitting the involuntary sterilization if institutionalized persons and 40,000 eugenic sterilization operations were recorded in the U.S. between 1907 and 1945" the report states. One law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, and was reflected in the now infamous opinion of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: "three generations of imbeciles are enough."

That philosophy was carried even further in Germany, where 400,000 Germans were forcibly sterilized and 200,000 others were killed, including babies with Down syndrome and elderly psychiatric patients. All in the effort to produce a super race.

Hopefully, that kind of thinking is gone forever. But maybe not.

Lee Dye's column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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