back to article You heard the latest Chinese CRISPRs? They are real: Renegade bio-boffin did genetically modify baby twins

Babies were genetically engineered in test tubes using the CRISPR DNA-editing tool as part of an illegal experiment led by disgraced scientist He Jiankui, the Chinese government confirmed this week. The rogue boffin boasted, during a talk at the Second International Summit on Gene Editing conference in November last year, that …

  1. Mark 85 Silver badge

    Some reports indicate that the "tender embrace" could be a firing squad. Any gene modifications/experiments should be rigorously monitored as there may be (or will be) unexpected consequences that could be disastrous and these should be done on test animals first just in case. The ethics of using animals in testing is another argument though....

    1. Wellyboot Silver badge

      Firing squad is a distinct possibility, Look up the Chinese contaminated milk case from 2008, two executions and a few life sentences for public health violations. China's hard line in applied justice isn't only for political crimes.

      This is human experimentation that Josef Mengele would have indulged in had he'd known about DNA.

      1. LucreLout Silver badge

        This is human experimentation that Josef Mengele would have indulged in had he'd known about DNA.

        I doubt it'd have been so benign. He'd have focussed on making consequences of disease worse for Jews with strains specifically engineered to target them, as well as making their people more susceptible to exsting strains of virus.

        That's not to say I agree with He's work ethic, but he's hardly Mengele.

    2. Dimmer

      Yep, we already have genetically altered crops. Even faster growing trees for lumber and paper that are genetically altered. It was suppose to be for a better, stronger - blight and drought resistant crops to "Feed the world". Odd thing, the pine trees don't produce seedlings and the corn seeds won't grow. If you plant the "improved" seeds and it does produce - be prepared to be sued by the major seed suppliers. Within a generation we have lost our unmodified seed stock. You can still get them, but not in a large enough quantity to feed our neighbors.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Monsanto are evil.

        That is all.

        1. Hans 1 Silver badge
          Happy

          Re: Monsanto are evil.

          Yeah, Monsanto are evil, but braindead Germans (quite rare find) in Bayer bought them up and, with Glyphosate liability, they are already bankrupt ... can you imagine, two with one blow ? I could not either, until Bayer showed how moronic they were!

          These things take time ... then we will go after BASF and the rest. Step-by-step, ohh baby!

      2. Wellyboot Silver badge

        My take on non viable seeds from GM crops is that it's a good thing to prevent the variety getting out of control (for whatever reason) and cross breeding with natural varieties with unknown results.

        However I agree the profit motive is likely to be the main reason corporates do this and it does introduce the serious monoculture risk of crop failure.

        1. DuncanLarge Silver badge

          "and cross breeding with natural varieties"

          What natural varieties?

          There are very few as most varieties have been bred and modified from the natural versions that are no longer grown. Are your carrots orange or their natural colour?

          Many of the varieties we grow today were created by chucking seeds into a nuclear reactor to see what you got. I'd rather have a proven safe modified seed growing rather than a descendant of an irradiated mutant.

      3. imanidiot Silver badge

        "Within a generation we have lost our unmodified seed stock. You can still get them, but not in a large enough quantity to feed our neighbors."

        Citation needed.

        I call bullshit on this one. Yes Monsanto delivers a scarily large portion of the worlds seed stock, but not all of it is modified (they sell more than one variety) and they don't deliver all of it. There's still a lot of it around. If a large proportion of farmers ever decides to switch back it'll probably be about a year to 2 years before a full switch can be made by all, but it's most certainly NOT out of the question.

        1. Andy The Hat Silver badge

          If you supply F1 hybrid seed, you can plant collected seed and it may even germinate but will not breed true so you can end up with a mess or even nothing. By 'kindly' supplying starving nations with tons of F1 seed Monsanto et al, after only one year, have those traditionally poor, sow, grow, hold back some seed and resow cultures over a purchasing barrel. It looks very much like the cheap 'tasters' of the drugs trade...

          1. EmilPer.

            hybrid seed is old

            Hybrid seeds were used for about 100 years, a long time before DNA was even discovered

            As per Mendel, if you plant seeds grown from hybrid seeds you'll get a proportion of each of the breeds used to make the hybrids, and some will even breed true, that is you'll get the original hybrid.

            Yes, they won't have the original productivity, but then the inbred plants used to make the hybrid had a worse productivity than the hybrid anyway.

            We're no longer using pure breeds because they are not as productive as a few of the hybrids they are used to produce, and even Monsanto/BASF/etc. propagate the pure breeds, else they won't be able to provide hybrid seed.

      4. HamsterNet

        I call bullshit and utter misinformation.

        1) In the EU, you are not allowed to grow and sow your own Seeds. This is a long-standing policy to stop inbreeding crops over and over again, as it leads to disaster (weak plants that get wiped out by a single disease). Or just idiots like yourself.

        2) int the EU we don't have any GM crops growing outside of control trials, mostly due to idiots like yourself have just enough knowledge to be stupid but not enough to have any idea what's going on.

        3) The first GM crops were for longer shelflife tomatoes, only later crops were for resistance to a natural herbicide (Roundup) and to produce a natural pesticide present in the soil. Yep the Genes for GM come from other natureal sources, we just dont have the tech to come up with noval proteints ourself and evolution does a way better job.

        4) We don't eat anything "natural" anymore, Not by GM, but by thousands of years of Selective Breeding. - Wheat doesn't looks like grass any more, Pigs are far from the natural boar. A while Banana is hardly recognisable compared to the organic one in the shops.

        .

        1. Hans 1 Silver badge
          Coat

          1) Well, I care to disagree, sir.

          2) that is the theory, uncontrolled cultivation in Poland made the headlines.

          3) make us eat RoundUp, great! Lovely jubbly.

          and

          4) true, but then again, GM crops come with a license and copyright.

          Who pays your bills ?

      5. DropBear Silver badge
        Facepalm

        In my crystal ball I see a glorious future where you purchase your offspring-enabling catalyst-serum from some megacorp or more likely the state itself - I just _know_ it would _love_ to get to decide who gets to reproduce (or both: either be rich or obedient; what's not to like?!?) - probably as a consequence of some earlier deal offering some kind of irresistible advantage* in exchange plus a propaganda campaign that manages to paint the whole Faustian affair as the Best Idea Ever That Is Totally Worth It - nay, more than that: the Only Reasonable And Morally Acceptable Choice!.

        You don't think it will come to pass...? Oh, you bet it will. Just watch. Probably not in the 21st century - it would likely be too abrupt to try anything so soon, the idea requires lots of grooming and just the right kind of exigent circumstances - but at some point, this _so_ will come to pass...

        * No need to make things complicated - just bundle the "serum conditioned fertility" part with a cure that you swear it is inextricably linked to, then engineer something the cure cures and protects against and - oopsie! - accidentally and surreptitiously let it loose, perhaps somewhere in Africa, as the newest horribly deadly super-bug. To make the choice easier for your victims, make sure your bug causes some sort of truly horrifying demise. Profit...!

      6. DuncanLarge Silver badge

        "Yep, we already have genetically altered crops."

        I would rather have genetically altered crops (after testing of course) rather than the current offering we have had for many decades: crops grown from irradiated seeds with random mutations that seem to be ok.

        Once I found out that many of our resistant crops in the shops today are descendants of seeds exposed to hard radiation to randomly corrupt the seeds genome to hopefully create a crop that shows the features you want I decided that accurately and scientifically modifying selected genes was a much safer and superior method.

        I sometimes swear I can see my tomatoes glowing in the dark...

  2. malle-herbert
    Joke

    CRISPR...

    Chinese Republic Initiative for creating Super Powered Rug-rats....

  3. IceC0ld Silver badge

    T otal

    I nability

    T o

    S top

    U surping

    P rotocols

  4. Garymrrsn

    What happens to the test subjects?

    Now that the experiment is terminated, will the government sterilize or terminate the genetically modified subjects of the experiment?

    Hopefully I've been reading too many dystopian novels.

    1. Wellyboot Silver badge

      Re: What happens to the test subjects?

      >>>Hopefully I've been reading too many dystopian novels.<<<

      Like Orwells rose tinted book 1984? where only the state was watching your every move?

    2. Rustbucket

      Re: What happens to the test subjects?

      "Now that the experiment is terminated, will the government sterilize or terminate the genetically modified subjects of the experiment?"

      Only when they grow up enough to publicly criticise the Chinese government.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The first cases?

    Possibly not.

    The Genie has escape the bottle....

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Yes, but did it work?

    1. Wellyboot Silver badge

      All that can be said at the moment is that they didn't become infected pre natel. For scientific rigour deliberate attempts to infect the pair would be required and that's just plain evil.

      The worst case possibility I can think of is that the pair could become non susceptible carriers (Typhoid Mary)

      1. A.P. Veening Silver badge

        non susceptible carriers (Typhoid Mary)

        Thanks for raising that night mare, it is a serious risk I hadn't recognised just yet.

        1. imanidiot Silver badge

          Re: non susceptible carriers (Typhoid Mary)

          For a disease like AIDS thats not really all that big of a problem. With modern medicine most of those that carry HIV are at least asymptomatic carriers. (And with proper treatment the levels become so low they are not even in danger of passing it on anymore).

      2. phuzz Silver badge
        Boffin

        Surely the worst case scenario is that he accidentally peppered his HIV-resistance gene throughout their DNA and now half the proteins that they need to grow up into healthy adults have been overwritten.

        CRISPR is good, but it's not a magic gene-editing bullet and it's not 100% reliable (yet).

  7. 89724102172714182892114I7551670349743096734346773478647892349863592355648544996312855148587659264921 Bronze badge

    All hail our new Axlotl Tanked immortal overlords

  8. MiguelC Silver badge

    He has a tough name to work with...

    "He [he] is accused"

    "The Chinese government condemned He’s work [his work?]"

    Who's Hu anyone?

    1. imanidiot Silver badge

      Re: He has a tough name to work with...

      Wait I thought Anyone would be the pitcher?

      1. Eddy Ito Silver badge

        Re: He has a tough name to work with...

        I'll tell ya, Tomorrow.

      2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: He has a tough name to work with...

        "Wait I thought Anyone would be the pitcher?"

        True, but he was asking about Hu. Hu's on first.

        1. imanidiot Silver badge

          Re: He has a tough name to work with...

          What?

          1. Swarthy Silver badge

            Re: He has a tough name to work with...

            What's on Second.

  9. Milton Silver badge

    It's not the biggest worry

    Leaving out the ethics for a moment, it's not the tailoring of individual human (particularly children's) genes that most worries me. (If you carry a gene for a horrible hereditary condition, is it more, or less, ethical to have it removed from your children ...?) I suggest that the genetically-tinkered-child genie is already out of the lamp, and while practitioners and their inevitably wealthy customers may remain out of sight—it's gonna happen. (Within 30—50 years we will begin to talk about the suspicious perfection and notably slow ageing of a few billionaires' children.)

    No, what troubles me more is how easy it is becoming for people to perform gene-level bioengineering. Every technology humanity creates can be used for good and for evil. The only thing preventing us from nuclear terrorism is the excruciating difficulty of getting hold of fissile material. Give an engineering / physics undergrad a couple of kilos of weapons-grade plutonium and s/he could design and build a crude, dirty and dreadful Bomb. Our species is extremely lucky that making weapons-grade fissiles is so very, very difficult and expensive that even nation-states struggle with it.

    The same is rapidly becoming untrue, though, where biotech is concerned. It seems plausible that within five or ten years, anyone who passed A-level chemistry or has, say, a fair understanding of biochemistry and some brains, will be able to tinker with viral and bacterial pathogens. Bear in mind a tailored organism isn't limited by the way evolution works. Evolution, by its very nature, tends not to reward pathogens which damage hosts too much or too quickly. The fact that viruses must propagate acts as a self-limiter, of sorts, on their worst characteristics.

    A tailored bug, though, is a different beast. It could be designed for (1) selectively attacking victims bearing specific genes, (2) a lengthy incubation and prodrome period, becoming infectious, with harmless-seeming cold-like allowing symptoms facilitating liberal aerosol and tactile contagion, (3) abrupt transition to lethal symptoms, (4) strong resistance to antibiotics and anitviral agents, and (5) very slow mutation rate. A Frankenstein superbug bearing the genes and abilities of many others, living only a few million generations while it rampages.

    The rise of ignorant populism has fostered a huge increase in racial hatreds, bigotry, intolerance and all manner of general-purpose stupidity. How do we know that some bitter redneck with a chemistry degree working out of a shack in Bumfuck, Alabama, isn't educating himself about genetic tailoring of bugs, one day to travel the world, Twelve Monkeys-style, releasing a super-virus intended to infect only those with genes for dark skin? Who can imagine what might happen when the imbecilic hatreds of racism meet 'easy' technologies enabling genetic modification of pathogens?

    We fret about control of fissile materials; we worry about 3D printing of gun components; and we're twitchy about editing of human babies' genes; what are we doing about the real, horrifyingly dangerous opportunities opening up ahead?

    PS Why did the post about GM IP abuse get a downvote, I wonder? Does anyone seriously doubt that the main motivation to push GM comes from corporate greed? Do you seriously think that Monsanto wouldn't, if it were able to, create an "improved" oxygen isotope they could patent, then buy some politicians to ensure its replacement in Earth's atmosphere, ultimately to charge everyone for breathing? The story of GM is about supplanting publicly available seeds farmers can get free and by cultivation, with something else that can be used to make money. The long-term risks to the environment of large scale GM monocultures are terrifying. And it's all in the name of greed.

    Why do you think such shockingly useless, manifestly unintelligent politicians as Owen Paterson try to hide the sources of cash for their propaganda junkets?

    1. HamsterNet

      Re: It's not the biggest worry

      A level biology is NEVER going to get you to the level of tinkering with Biology. Its WAY WAY harder than that, Just the concepts of how a multi-gene system work is hard at degree level and that's just the basics of genetics.

      Anybody with the knowledge to make a superbug knows this doesn't work. It's possible to make a killer virus, you can't tailor it, Humans are Humans, we are all the same stock. there are no differences to separate out targets. Also, Evolution happens regardless if you like it or not, so any pathogen release today will not stay as you created it.

      This is why is totally and utterly band and not violated. As its just DUMB. Nobody wants to wipe out all of humanity even if they do want to wipe out group X based upon some ideological reason.

      As for Editing Humans, It would be nice if we could. Our Genome is a MESS, its riddled with errors, our biology has so many evolution hang-ups that no "designer" would ever accept its unbelievable. we are weak, slow healing, prone to lots of diseases, have poor eyesight, hearing, short-lived etc etc.

      The issue is it's Ridiculously hard to even come up with what should be revised let alone what shoudl be coded in there and then finally doing it.

      CRISPA allows a single gene to be edited, a few thousand bases out of 3 billion. What's needed is a full rewrite.

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: It's not the biggest worry

        "have poor eyesight, hearing, short-lived"

        Actually we have much better colour vision than a great many other animals. Acuity doesn't necessarily match some others but there's a trade-off between more receptors for acuity and more receptors for colour discrimination. We're actually very long-lived. That's a consequence of producing very under-developed young at birth, in itself a consequence of walking upright which restricts the size of the birth passage and having large brains which means the brain has to only part grown at birth so the cranium can just make it through. As a result post-birth development is greatly extended and there's evolutionary advantage in extending life well beyond child-bearing age so that grandparents can help raise grandchildren.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: It's not the biggest worry

        Humans are Humans, we are all the same stock. there are no differences to separate out targets.

        The sickle cell trait says differently. OK, so it's not 100% definitive, but if I was a crazy white supremacist bio-hacker, it's a pretty good starting point...

        Who can be a sickle cell carrier?

        Anyone can be a carrier of sickle cell, but it's much more common in people from certain ethnic backgrounds.

        People with family members originally from the following parts of the world are most at risk:

        Africa

        the Caribbean

        the Middle East

        the eastern Mediterranean

        Asia

        In the UK, most people who carry sickle cell have an African or Caribbean family background. It's estimated that around 1 in 10 people in this group may be a carrier.

        https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/sickle-cell-disease/carriers/

  10. Cuddles Silver badge

    But that's not how it works

    "eight couples, where the men had HIV but the women did not, and genetically modified embryos with CRISPR before implanting them into the wombs of the women. The goal was, as you can imagine, to make babies that were not HIV positive despite their parentage."

    HIV can be passed from a mother to a fetus during pregnancy. The HIV status of the father is irrelevant; the only way a father can infect a fetus is by passing the infection to the mother first. According to the description given, He took uninfected embryos and implanted them in uninfected women. In that situation, no-one was ever going to end up infected with HIV, whether they were genetically modified or not. Ethics aside, the whole thing appears to have been a complete waste of time that could never have proved anything.

    1. Pirate Dave Silver badge
      Pirate

      Re: But that's not how it works

      Maybe the HIV stuff was just a bunch of handwaving to throw-off the scent. What he _really_ did was create the first humans who can fly...

  11. Brian Miller
    Boffin

    More mad science!!

    This is something that should be carried out all over the world. Everybody needs to get something like The Odin (http://www.the-odin.com/diy-crispr-kit/) and modify like maaaad! Cut, copy, and paste with reckless abandon. Release it all to the wild! Have fun with forced evolution! Remember, you're not insane when you talk to your asparagus, but it talks back to you, fills out your taxes, and finally plans for its own world domination! Carrot juice is murder!

  12. Dedobot

    Pretty sure it's was CN government backed task but something messed up and now He is taking the responsibility. Like a low level mafia guys- "Yes mr. Judge, I was doing it on my own,no others involved"

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The best part of gene tampering by flawed humans is that are never any unintended consequences - today or tomorrow!

    Utopia, here we come...

  14. Rustbucket

    Gene therepy not needed for HIV-free kids.

    If the idea was to get HIV-free offspring and mother from an infected father, then the whole procedure was unnecessary.

    There is a process called sperm washing that has been around for decades that already achieves that aim. The HIV virus in the ejaculate of an infected male is only found in the seminal fluid, not in the man's little swimmers. By means of centrifuging the sperm down through a washing solution and leaving the original seminal fluid behind, doctors can get a clean sample of sperm that can be tested as HIV free and use that for artificial insemination.

    http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/evading_virus/howworks.html

    I believe this is also used in regular assisted reproduction procedures to separate the active, healthy sperm from the duds.

    1. DuncanLarge Silver badge

      Re: Gene therepy not needed for HIV-free kids.

      Who in their right mind would go to all that trouble?

      It would be better to accept the truth and just adopt.

    2. imanidiot Silver badge

      Re: Gene therepy not needed for HIV-free kids.

      With proper treatment the levels of virus in the blood can be reduced to such low levels that it would be safe to do it the old-fashioned way (giggity) without risk of infecting the mother.

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