In 20 years, will anyone roll the dice on a naturally conceived child?

A human parent’s biggest fear is having a child with a genetic disorder (though the most commonly expressed fear on Facebook is of Donald Trump winning a second term!).

Technology is bringing us pretty close to eliminating this fear and giving us a bewildering array of options.

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer reminds the reader of the diversity in sperm and egg cells due to meiosis:

In men, meiosis takes place within a labyrinth of tubes coiled within the testicles. The tube walls are lined with sperm precursor cells, each carrying two copies of each chromosome—one from the man’s mother, the other from his father. When these cells divide, they copy all their DNA, so that now they have four copies of each chromosome. Rather than drawing apart from each other, however, the chromosomes stay together. A maternal and paternal copy of each chromosome line up alongside each other. Proteins descend on them and slice the chromosomes, making cuts at precisely the same spots. As the cell repairs these self-inflicted wounds, a remarkable exchange can take place. A piece of DNA from one chromosome may get moved to the same position in the other, its own place taken by its counterpart. This molecular surgery cannot be rushed. All told, a cell may need three weeks to finish meiosis. Once it’s done, its chromosomes pull away from each other. The cell then divides twice, to make four new sperm cells. Each of the four cells inherits a single copy of all twenty-three chromosomes. But each sperm cell contains a different assembly of DNA. One source of this difference comes from how the pairs of chromosomes get separated. A sperm might contain the version of chromosome 1 that a man inherited from his father, chromosome 2 from his mother, and so on. Another sperm might have a different combination. At the same time, some chromosomes in a sperm are hybrids. Thanks to meiosis, a sperm cell’s copy of chromosome 1 might be a combination of DNA from both his mother and father.

A particular child of two parents, therefore, is just one choice from a near-infinite array of genetic possibilities assembled from the four grandparents. That’s what comes out when a baby is conceived naturally. What if parents were given the opportunity to choose from hundreds of possible outcomes?

In 2012, the Japanese biologist Katsuhiko Hayashi managed to coax induced pluripotent stem cells to develop into the progenitors of eggs. If he implanted them in the ovaries of female mice, they could finish maturing. Over the next few years, Hayashi perfected the procedure, transforming mouse skin cells into eggs entirely in a dish. When he fertilized the eggs, some of them developed into healthy mouse pups. Other researchers have figured out how to make sperm from skin cells taken from adult mice.

Nevertheless, the success that Yamanaka and other researchers have had with animals is grounds for optimism—or worry, depending on what you think about how we might make use of this technology. It’s entirely possible that, before long, scientists will learn how to swab the inside of people’s cheeks and transform their cells into sperm or eggs, ready for in vitro fertilization. If scientists can perfect this process—called in vitro gametogenesis—it will probably be snapped up by fertility doctors. Harvesting mature eggs from women remains a difficult, painful undertaking. It would be far easier for women to reprogram one of their skin cells into an egg. It would also mean that both women and men who can’t make any sex cells at all wouldn’t need a donor to have a child.

Today, parents who use in vitro fertilization can choose from about half a dozen embryos. In vitro gametogenesis might offer them a hundred or more. Shuffling combinations of genes together so many times could produce a much bigger range of possibilities.

But the implications of in vitro gametogenesis go far beyond these familiar scenarios—to ones that Hermann Muller never would have thought of. Induced pluripotent stem cells have depths of possibilities that scientists have just started to investigate. Men, for instance, might be able to produce eggs. A homosexual couple might someday be able to combine gametes, producing children who inherited DNA from both of them. One man might produce both eggs and sperm, combining them to produce a family—not a family of clones, but one in which each child draws a different combination of alleles. It would give the term single-parent family a whole new meaning.

Here’s a yet more science fiction-y possibility… The highest fertility among Americans is in the lowest income mothers, i.e., those who are on welfare. The government will be paying for 100 percent of the costs of any children produced by these mothers: housing, health care, food, education, etc. Once grown up, these children are likely to be low earners and therefore on welfare themselves (see The Son Also Rises). What if the government begins to run out of borrowing capacity and decides that it needs to fund future taxpayers, not future welfare recipients? The tendency to work and pay taxes is as heritable as anything else. So the government offers financial inducements to mothers who agree to abort children conceived with low-income men and instead incubate embryos provided by the government. Said embryos to be carefully screened such that the moms are almost guaranteed to have a physically and mentally healthy child and the government is almost guaranteed to get an adult that enjoys working and paying taxes.

Readers: What do you think? In 2040 or 2050 will there be anyone willing to roll the genetic dice by having sex and seeing what kind of baby comes out?

12 thoughts on “In 20 years, will anyone roll the dice on a naturally conceived child?

  1. Yes, I believe so because:

    1. I suspect that technology is being massively over-promised.

    2. Those who still believe in Christianity, be they small in number, cannot separate sex and reproduction. Many are aware that this means you cannot have sex and deliberately avoid reproducing, but unaware that is also means you cannot reproduce without sex.

    3. Sex will always be cheaper than any artificial reproduction, those who naturally reproduce will therefore out breed those who artificially reproduce.

  2. I can’t believe you didn’t mention the child support possibilities this opens up when Jeff Bezos’ dermatologist gets ahold of some of skin cells to make into sperm!

    • Aren’t there several movies about this already? Either via cloning or eugenics? Or even being a cyborg or robot? Students are already using drugs to “enhance” their study and test taking experiences. Even I take cognitive supplements. I’m looking forward to the cybergenic implant that allows me to perfectly remember everything. I’m 55 now, so so need it in the next 15-20 years or so, before Alzheimer’s sets in. I’m even willing to accept my brain being downloaded to software and continue with a robotic body later on. Only a small part of the population can afford to produce a perfect child. And most of us could not bear to abort 99 defective children for the “perfect”one. And some countries did it by just aborting females, considering them inferior. And those same countries now have large populations of males seeking mates, sexually frustrated, with reduced options for wives. Historically, wars have purged the lowest IQ and most aggressive males in a population, but this requires there be battles with armies in conquest. There haven’t been fights like that since the 1960’s, except for maybe in the Middle East. The future doesn’t look good for Democracies IMO, because there just aren’t enough educated people left to manage the uneducated. The 1 percent used to manage the other 99 through religion and patriotism, but those techniques aren’t working so well now. The 99% need simple rules to follow, and they expect to succeed inside a basic and “fair” system of rules. That system is breaking down, so I wonder if the intellectuals will disappear for a generation or hide.

  3. I frequently point out to couples here in Silicon Valley that if they believe designer babies are coming in the next decade (and they often do) then logically they should conceive as soon as possible.

    Do you want your child to compete against a cohort of superkids, or do you want them to manage the designer babies due to being 5-10 years older?

    Seems clear one of these outcomes is better.

    • But John, as a late baby boomer early Gen-Xer, I can tell you that the kid still doesn’t have a chance, even with a 5 year head start. In our current economy, the baby boomers refuse to up power, my wife’s boss is 70 and won’t stop until she dies. The millennials are the next demographic bubble and they are showing power like no one’s business, people like AOC. So take your new child and educate him or her as much as possible to find a place in the world that they are comfortable with. Unless they are severely disabled, they should do fine with smart and wise parents.

  4. I forgot to add that living in a culture that glorifies violence also does not help cognitive capabilities. Football is a religion in the this country and after refusing to let the football coach have my sons on the team (6’ 3” 195 lbs, 6’ 4” 215 lbs), the youngest just finished his Freshman year at Texas A&M with a 4.0 GPA. The oldest graduated as the top investment banker from Southern Methodist University. The coaches called every year asking for both of my sons to “try out”. My youngest played 7th grade football with two knee injuries and one concussion. In what country does it make sense that allow two men who can now run at 20 mph to intentionally hit each other at those speeds?

  5. > In 2040 or 2050…roll the dice… ?

    My answer is: absolutely not. In fact, it will happen before then, and my timeline is around 2030, maybe sooner. Why? The reasons are too verbose to deal with in a response post, but the most basic one is that people will want the technology and it will become less expensive. Companies will invest in providing the services and people will buy them. Then there will be a “reproductive divide” movement that promises those same services to people who lack the income to afford them. Right now we have Obamaphones, but in the very near future we’re going to have reproductive genetics for the masses. We’re going to see a massive shift away from just preventing terrible inherited disease because people don’t just want to avoid bad outcomes, they want to maximize good outcomes wherever possible. The wealthy will do it first, but soon afterward it will become commonplace.

    Think about it: the egalitarian streak in American society simply won’t tolerate the idea that only the rich can afford to select the genetics of their children. That isn’t going to fly in the Socialist country we’re going to be living in.

  6. About 50% of American babies are unplanned. Those will not be affected. Another 40% of parents have no savings, and would rather spend the money on beer anyway.

    Also, Toney Doe is right.

  7. Just watch GATTACA the movie to see what it will be like for parents and children in the future…

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