Researchers in Portland, Oregon, U.S. have just attempted to create genetically modified embryos. Led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov from Oregon Health and Science University, this involved changing the DNA of a large number of one-cell embryos with the gene-editing technique CRISPR.
Until now, American scientists have experienced a combination of awe, envy and some worry from scientists in other parts of the world who were first to explore this controversial practice.
However, it is believed that Mitalipov has broken new ground both in the number of embryos experimented upon and by demonstrating that it's possible to safely and efficiently correct defective genes that cause inherited diseases.
So far, this is in its testing phase. None of the embryos were allowed to develop for more than a few days and there had never been any intention of implanting them into a womb. Nevertheless, what was once deemed as science fiction may soon become a reality: the experiments are a milestone on what may prove to be an inevitable journey toward the birth of the first genetically modified human.
By altering the DNA code of human embryos, the objective of this experiment is to show that genes that cause inherited diseases, can be corrected and eradicated. This process is termed as 'germline engineering' because any genetically modified child would then pass the changes on to subsequent generations via their own germ cells - the egg and sperm.
Those opposing the project believe that the germline experiments could open the floodgates to a new world of 'designer babies' engineered with genetic enhancements. This prospect is of course, bitterly opposed by religious organizations, as well as civil society groups and biotech companies. Furthermore, the U.S. Intelligence community last year called this project a potential weapon of mass destruction.