.

  • Written by Dennis McNevin, Professor of Forensic Genetics, University of Technology Sydney
No gene for cuteness has yet been identified -- but give it time. Shutterstock

Designer baby, anyone? A New Jersey startup company, Genomic Prediction, might be able to help you.

Genomic Prediction claims to be able to use DNA testing to predict disease risk in an embryo. The idea is to study hundreds or thousands of small variations in DNA, known as genetic markers, and use sophisticated computer algorithms to correlate these with diseases such as type 1 and type 2 diabetes, breast cancer and “intellectual disability”.

If the company’s recent research is any guide, it may move on to predicting other traits such as height and even educational attainment.

But the connections between genetic variations and differences in real human beings are far from straightforward. And even if we can make these connections, should we?

Lessons from forensics

In my own field, forensic genetics, we have a similar goal: to produce a “molecular photofit” or “DNA mugshot” of the perpetrator of a crime, using DNA left at a crime scene. At first, there was great optimism.

Only six genetic markers were required to predict blue or brown eye colour with reasonable accuracy. However, prediction of intermediate eye colours (green, hazel, light brown) was less accurate. Testing for hair colour soon followed (24 markers) and, most recently, skin colour (41 markers).

Eye, hair and skin colour are all largely controlled by a small number of genes related to the pigment melanin. There are two types of melanin, a dark and a light form, and between them they give rise to the spectrum of eye, hair and skin colours.


Read more: World's first genetically modified human embryo raises ethical concerns


High doses of the light pigment are found only in individuals with European ancestry, particularly northern European. Prediction systems have really only been developed and tested rigorously on Europeans and North Americans.

This is the case with many large “genome-wide association studies” (GWAS) and data sets, including some of those used by Genomic Prediction. Individuals without European ancestry are poorly represented, and the associations between genetic markers and traits don’t always replicate in populations that don’t have European ancestry.

Slow progress

Since these first few pigmentation prediction systems, progress has been slow in forensic genetics. This is because most traits – even ones that are strongly influenced by genetics – are very “polygenic”, which means they are influenced by many different genes.

For example, height and educational attainment are both highly heritable. But they are under the influence of hundreds, if not thousands, of genetic markers, each with a very small effect on the trait.

Further, the marker variants with the largest influence are generally the rarest ones. For example, the variants with the largest influence on height each account for only one or two centimetres and are present in no more than 0.2% of the population. More common variants each account for height differences of mere millimetres or even less.

Polygenic scores add up all the tiny effects of these multiple marker variants to give an overall prediction. But there are several caveats.

First, they don’t take account of genetic synergies (epistasis). The effects of two (or more) different markers may not add up in any simple way.

Second, they completely ignore environmental effects: the “nurture” part of “nature versus nurture”. For example, although both are highly heritable, height is affected by nutrition, and educational attainment is influenced by educational expectations and parental education. So, really, what is being predicted is the genetic potential for a particular trait.

A practical and ethical minefield

Assuming Genomic Prediction can predict these potentials accurately, will they all be found in one embryo?

Let’s say you want a tall, brown-eyed, high educational achiever with a low risk of breast cancer. The odds of finding all of these potentials in one embryo is very low, like throwing dozens of dice and having them all come up with sixes.

Even if you are lucky with your roll of the genetic dice, are you sure your designer baby will thank you when they grow up? Your idea of the perfect trait might not be theirs. You are, in effect, choosing their DNA without their consent.


Read more: 3-parent IVF could prevent illness in many children (but it's really more like 2.002-parent IVF)


Are you ready to see a prediction of what your baby might look like as an adult, or a photo-board from which to choose your future offspring? Companies are already offering to produce molecular photofits of unknown donors of crime-scene DNA. It’s not a giant leap to designer babies.

At US$1,000 per case and an additional US$400 per screened embryo for expanded pre-implantation genomic testing (EPGT is Genomic Prediction’s “flagship product”), designer babies will inevitably be more available to wealthier parents. There are valid concerns that this could lead to genetic advantage and disadvantage along socio-economic lines.

Genetic screening is already common practice, especially for chromosomal disorders. Like many others, my own daughter received a nuchal fold thickness assessment as a standard ultrasound screen for Down syndrome.

Screening for genetic risks is just one more step along this continuum. But how many steps should we take? Once we start selecting for “desirable” characteristics, it’s easy to see the moral slope becoming very slippery.

Dennis McNevin is Director of the Genetic Ancestry Lab (GAL), a service for forensic investigators wanting to know the biogeographical ancestry and externally visible characteristics of unknown DNA donors. The GAL is a joint venture of the University of Technology Sydney and the University of Canberra. It received funding from ANU Connect Ventures (www.anuconnectventures.com.au/) and AMP’s Tomorrow Fund (www.ampstomorrowfund.com.au/). Dennis also received funding from the Australian Research Council for a Linkage Project (LP110100121): From genotype to phenotype - Molecular photofitting for criminal investigations.

Authors: Dennis McNevin, Professor of Forensic Genetics, University of Technology Sydney

Read more http://theconversation.com/an-american-company-will-test-your-embryos-for-genetic-defects-but-designer-babies-arent-here-just-yet-126833

5 Things to Keep in Mind When Renting Skip Bins

Renting a skip bin is an easy way to ensure that all your rubbish is collected and sorted properly, especially in situations where you might not be able to rely on local rubbish collection services ...

News Company - avatar News Company

Job losses expected as NZ's broadcasting sector faces biggest overhaul in a decade

New Zealand's commercial broadcasters are in trouble and the government is considering a complete restructure of public broadcasting. from www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-NDNew Zealand’s broadcastin...

Merja Myllylahti, Co-Director JMAD research center, Auckland University of Technology - avatar Merja Myllylahti, Co-Director JMAD research center, Auckland University of Technology

Can Indigenous Australians be deported as 'aliens'? A High Court decision will show us the strength of modern colonial power

Federal Immigration Minister David Coleman has cancelled the visas of two overseas born Indigenous men with a criminal past. They are, Coleman says, aliens with no automatic right to live in Australia...

Dominic O'Sullivan, Adjunct Professor, Faculty of Health and Environmental Sciences, Auckland University of Technology and Associate Professor of Political Science, Charles Sturt University - avatar Dominic O'Sullivan, Adjunct Professor, Faculty of Health and Environmental Sciences, Auckland University of Technology and Associate Professor of Political Science, Charles Sturt University

'One of the most poignant opera scenes I have ever experienced': Pinchgut’s Farnace

This new production of Farnace overwhelms with delight. Brett Boardman/Pinchgut OperaReview: Farnace, composed by Vivaldi, Pinchgut Opera When a performance of Farnace was cancelled at the theatre o...

Daniela Kaleva, Associate Head Research and Scholarship, Australian Institute of Music - avatar Daniela Kaleva, Associate Head Research and Scholarship, Australian Institute of Music

Politics with Michelle Grattan: Andrew Hastie on foreign influence, security and veteran mental health

Chinese government influence and interference has been a contentious issue in Australia politics in the past year. Weighing up concerns about foreign money in state and federal campaigns, candidates...

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra - avatar Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

Litigation is the real reason financial reports are becoming harder to read

Westpac can expect a bumper turnout of shareholders at its annual general meeting in Sydney on Thursday, many of them angry at its alleged role in facilitating child exploitation in the Philippines, i...

Mark Humphery-Jenner, Associate Professor of Finance, UNSW - avatar Mark Humphery-Jenner, Associate Professor of Finance, UNSW

'How do I clean my penis?'

Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND Growing up, no one ever gave me the rundown on how or what I should do to keep my penis clean […] I’ve never read any reliable answer beyond washi...

David King, Senior Lecturer, The University of Queensland - avatar David King, Senior Lecturer, The University of Queensland

Voters send sharp message to politicians about trust: ANU Australian Election Study

Following the 2019 federal election, only 59% of voters said they were satisfied with the way democracy was working. AAP/Mick TsikasThe Australian National University’s election study has unders...

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra - avatar Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

Finally, your electricity bill looks set to fall. Here's how much you could save

The renewables revolution is starting to pay off: our electricity bills are set to fall. AAP/Julian SmithHousehold electricity bills in Australia have increased sharply in the past decade. But new off...

Tim Nelson, Associate Professor of Economics, Griffith University - avatar Tim Nelson, Associate Professor of Economics, Griffith University

Estonia didn't deliver its PISA results on the cheap, and neither will Australia

Estonia spends less per student than Australia, but its average wages are lower too. Ruslan Valeev/UnsplashEducation news in Australia last week was dominated by Australia’s worst ever showing i...

Peter Goss, School Education Program Director, Grattan Institute - avatar Peter Goss, School Education Program Director, Grattan Institute

What is sodium lauryl sulfate and is it safe to use?

SLS is a known irritant to human skin. But if it's only in contact with your skin for a short time, it's probably OK. from www.shutterstock.comIf you’ve ever Googled the causes of a skin compla...

Yousuf Mohammed, Dermatology researcher, The University of Queensland - avatar Yousuf Mohammed, Dermatology researcher, The University of Queensland

Science needs true diversity to succeed -- and Australian astronomy shows how we can get it

Australian astronomy punches well above its weight, in terms of the research it leads and the facilities it houses. We have made remarkable discoveries in the past year alone. Our scientists have re...

Lisa Kewley, Director, ARC Centre for Excellence in All-Sky Astrophysics in 3D, Australian National University - avatar Lisa Kewley, Director, ARC Centre for Excellence in All-Sky Astrophysics in 3D, Australian National University

50 years on from the Melbourne Transportation Plan, what can we learn from its legacy?

The Melbourne Transportation Plan included every freeway and major arterial road built in the city since 1969. Shuang Li/ShutterstockThis is the first article in a series to mark the 50th anniversary ...

Liam Davies, PhD Candidate, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University - avatar Liam Davies, PhD Candidate, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University

State Library Victoria proves libraries aren't just about books: they're about community

Not the hushed or book-filled library experience you might expect. Patrick Rodriguez/SLVPublic libraries embody the values of democracy by offering free access to knowledge. But the role of contempora...

Sarah Backhouse, Research Fellow, Learning Environments Applied Research Network (LEaRN), University of Melbourne - avatar Sarah Backhouse, Research Fellow, Learning Environments Applied Research Network (LEaRN), University of Melbourne

Evangelical churches believe men should control women. That's why they breed domestic violence

Evangelical church teachings create fertile ground for domestic violence, its justification and its concealment. ShutterstockThis article is the first in a series exploring gender and Christianity. J...

Vicki Lowik, PhD candidate, CQUniversity Australia - avatar Vicki Lowik, PhD candidate, CQUniversity Australia

Why Vieques Puerto Rico Should Be on Your Bucket List

When visiting remote islands, most people would say that you only need to stay a couple of days there. But when you decide to visit Vieques, Puerto Rico, you can strike that idea out of your mind...

News Company - avatar News Company

Albanese accuses Facebook of shrugging off fakery

Anthony Albanese has also criticised the government for attacking freedom of the press and the right to protest. AAP/Mick TsikasOpposition leader Anthony Albanese is sharply critical of Facebook for f...

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra - avatar Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

Latest Wednesday Lotto Results

Wednesday Lotto draw 3917 Lucky numbers for this draw were 43 followed by 25. The rest of the winning numbers are 44, 33, 7 and lastly 15. So, one even and five odd numbers are in the lucky num...

Viw Magazine - avatar Viw Magazine

Chinese students top the PISA rankings, but some Shanghai parents are turning away from the school system

China is fast becoming a middle-class nation. Ewan Yap/UnsplashAustralian 15 year olds were around three and a half years behind their counterparts in China in maths, according to the OECD’s lat...

Hannah Soong, Senior Lecturer in Teacher Education Practice, School of Education, University of South Australia - avatar Hannah Soong, Senior Lecturer in Teacher Education Practice, School of Education, University of South Australia

Sick and Tired of Your Dead End Job? Try Teaching!

Tired of the same old grind at the office? Want an opportunity to impact lives both in your community and around the world? Do you love to travel and have new experiences? Teaching English is the perfect job for you! All you need is a willingness to ...

News Company - avatar News Company

The Impact of an Aging Population in Australia

There’s an issue on the horizon that Australia needs to prepare for. The portion of elderly citizens that make up the country’s overall population is increasing, and we might not have the infrastructure in place to support this. Australians h...

News Company - avatar News Company

LifeStyle

Latest Wednesday Lotto Results

Wednesday Lotto draw 3917 Lucky numbers for this draw were 43 followed by 25. The rest of the...

Ways Love and Relationships Benefit Body and Mind

Being in a happy relationship is great. You always have someone to greet you when you come home ...

The Importance of Smiling: How You Can Smile More

Happiness is something we all strive for and is often just out of reach. Of course, it’s impos...

5 Things to Do On Your Wedding Morning

After months of meticulous planning, wedding mornings usually find the bride excited but stressed ...