Season 37 Episode 3

Life and Death in the 21st Century - Designer Babies

Aired Tuesday 9:00 PM Jan 06, 2000 on BBC Two
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Episode Summary

Life and Death in the 21st Century - Designer Babies
This is part three of a three-part Horizon special series. In this trilogy on the future, Horizon explores one of the most disturbing possibilities that science offers us. In the 21st century biotechnology will dominate our food, our health, our environment. But now scientists are beginning to talk about the final taboo - genetic engineering of humans. Designer Babies separates the science from the science fiction and discovers whether we really will be able to order the perfect designer baby by hand picking its genes.

Extraordinary techniques have already been developed to 'micro-sort' sperm, in order to pre-select the sex of a child. Within a few years' time, each of the 100,000 genes that make up the human genome will have been identified as part of the multi-billion dollar Human Genome Project. The next phase is to tease out the riddle of the genes.

Using futuristic DNA "chips", scientists can now answer complex questions about how genes control our minds and bodies. It is beginning to look inevitable that, however fierce the debate, the technology to make designer babies will happen - maybe just 20 years from now. Geneticists claim to have found the gene for good-parenting, genes for obesity, Alzheimer's, red hair, and even happiness. Incredibly, scientists have even constructed an artificial human chromosome, which could carry any genes a geneticist - or prospective parents - desired.

A technique called Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) is already being used to screen embryos for genetic diseases. Embryos created outside the body using in vitro fertilisation are tested to see whether they carry a genetic disorder before being transferred to the uterus. It's deeply controversial whether parents should ever be allowed to select embryos just because they're genetically different.

At the moment the technique is used for therapeutic purposes only, to screen for children who may have a deadly genetic disease. Even if some parents and their doctors were willing to use PGD for cosmetic or enhancement purposes, which remains absolutely taboo, the technique is limited in a crucial way - PGD can only select an embryo with genes inherited from the parents.

One day parents may be able to pick any gene they desire from a range of bottled genes and have it put into their embryos. It's strictly against the law to do this in humans and yet scientists have been quietly perfecting the art of adding genes into embryos for years - in animals. The scientists know how important their work is - they rank it above putting man on the moon or splitting the atom; they are aware that they hold the future of the human race in their hands. But does the public fully understand the implications of this work?

If designer babies are possible it may only be the rich that have access to the technology. Might humans develop into two separate species - one with superior genes and the other the underdogs, the 'ordinary people'? And what happens when the technology backfires - as it did with the Beltsville pig, whose genetic engineering went horribly wrong causing it to grow into a "monster"?

Horizon looks at both the benefits and the dilemmas behind the amazing advances in genetic technology. Despite the technical hurdles which remain, many geneticists can already see how legitimate medical techniques could be hijacked for 'enhancement' as opposed to 'therapy'.moreless

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