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Your genome is just a click away

James Turner | Jan. 9, 2009
Currently, commercial services will deliver an entire sequenced genome in less than a month, and there is a concerted effort to reduce that price to under US$1,000.

In its more benign form, this takes the form of sampling a cell from in-vitro fertilized (IVF) embryos and choosing which one to implant based on the results. So, if the parents want a blue-eyed child, only blue-eyed embryos would be implanted. Parents can already choose the gender of the child to be implanted, sometimes to prevent a gender-linked disease from being passed on, and sometimes to create "family balance."

The more sinister scenario is the use of amniocentesis or ultrasound studies of a fetus to abort undesirable children. This is not science fiction; it's a growing problem in India and China. Selective abortion of girls has led to an increasingly out of balance gender ratio, with 20 percent more boys than girls being born in China.

As the price of genome testing falls, and more and more traits are identified, we face the possibility that other traits, such as blond hair or green eyes or height could be similarly skewed. Today, very few children are born by IVF, but the allure of creating the "perfect" baby may be hard to resist.

David Magnus points out that some IVF couples already practice a version of this, by selecting egg and sperm donors with traits they desire. But he's less worried about skewing the genome than he is about the welfare of the children, and what is called "The right to an open future." "If you allow prenatal testing, if you allow selection of these sorts, if you allow newborn testing, you do worry about the kind of impact that it could have on the children, and the likelihood that they will be as free to make decisions about themselves as they otherwise would. From the kid's point of view, imagine if the parent says 'Look, I got this egg from someone who's very musically inclined... we did a genome scan when you were born and you have several of these genes that have a very small casual associations with musical ability, so we expect you to become a very gifted musician.' But the kid wants to play football."

Magnus doubts it will become a serious problem though, at least in the United States. "The idea of a Gattaca world, where most people do IVF in one form or another to procreate, I think is very unrealistic. As long as there is alcohol and youth and indiscretion, people will continue to have children the old fashioned way."


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