Can You Make My Kid Smarter?

A dispatch from the frontiers of 21st century genetics

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It was the scientists at St. Gen who first grasped the significance of this discovery. The main technical objection to germ-line genetic engineering had been the premise that you could never know what effects an added gene would have until after the child was born. By that time, of course, it was too late to avoid unintended negative side effects. But if the gene already existed naturally in other people, you could study those people first to determine the gene's safety.

Fertility clinics have always occupied a peculiar place in the American medical system. From the birth of the field in the 1980s, political pressure from conservative religious groups prevented federal money from being used for any work on human embryos. As a result, top clinics operated quietly in the private sector, beyond the reach of most governmental regulations.

In the private sector, competition and the desire to expand into new markets fueled an intense research effort into new reproductive technologies. The most impressive technology of all was germ-line genetic engineering, which could be accomplished only by experts in human embryology, who were employed exclusively by private fertility clinics. The potential for profit was enormous, and financial support was easily obtained from biotech venture capitalists. Indeed, the unique American political-scientific-business environment boded well for global domination of the new field.

But first, St. Gen had a serious marketing problem on its hands. The term genetic engineering triggered images of Frankenstein-like scientists creating little monsters. This image was clearly not good for business. What could they do to change the public's view? At this point, their highly paid marketing consultant earned her keep. "Change the name!" she bellowed. "Call your service Organic Enhancement, and prospective parents will come running."

How right she was!

The clinic called a press conference after the first organically enhanced child was born. The reporters shouted out their questions to the mother nursing her baby in her arms.

"Isn't it unethical? How could you change your baby's genes when she was unable to give consent?"

"Why is it unethical to provide my child with the best possible chance for a healthy life?" the mother responded. "Why can't I give my child protective genes that other children get naturally?"

In a short time, as more and more parents brought home happy, healthy babies, the debate faded away. Meanwhile, the scientists at St. Gen had their eyes on the future. A mere thousand genetic changes had been identified that were mostly responsible for the difference between the intelligence of chimpanzees and humans. Now if they could just ratchet up those genes...

Lee M. Silver is a professor of molecular biology and public affairs at Princeton University and the author of Remaking Eden: How Genetic Engineering and Cloning Will Transform the American Family

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