Scrambled Eggs

Great! Test tube mothers now, is it? Not enough to eliminate the Fallopian tube, or the on-egg dating site where potential sperm candidates meet, are scrutinized, profiles scanned and competition held for first across the zona (pellucida, that is) … Oh no, now we have to eliminate the entire coffee shop. What is happening out there… or do I mean in there? It’s so confusing.

There was a time when it was simple. Well, maybe it wasn’t, but at least we were used to it. You met somebody and expectations and hormones took over. No need to put in a special request for stem cells, or people in white lab coats and masks. No need to take out a loan –although flowers and dinners aren’t that cheap anymore, either. But it was the excitement of the chase, the hunt –searching for clues about the other person that weren’t all tied to their DNA; picking them because they were funny and considerate, cute and snuggly. They had histories. Stories. Isn’t that why we get together? Wasn’t it?

Okay, I’m leap-frogging here. We’re not there yet –I mean they are not there yet; I suspect that, despite the occasional slip-up, most of us are still going to prefer to stick to the traditional court-and-impregnate model that has served us so far. I mean, fun is fun, eh? And to be fair, there’s a lot to deal with if you want to bypass natural stuff -ingredients, for example. Right now, you need a minimum of two things to make babies: a sperm and a receptive egg (sperm always seem to be in the mood…). Yes, and you need a place for them to meet and grow together, but there are any number of uteri out of work at any given time, so, with the rise of things like Airbnb, I suspect they won’t be a problem.

And everything that is alive has DNA and its instruction manuals closeted away somewhere… Do you see the opportunities I’m suggesting? Trick some skin cell, or whatever, into thinking it’s a sperm or an egg, and poof –reproduction-lite. Better still, why not hoodwink that ordinary cell into thinking it’s pregnant? I mean, it’s got all the necessary assembly instructions squirrelled away, hasn’t it? Your argument just has to be convincing. Persuasive. It doesn’t necessarily need to be, well, necessary. You could just be doing it for fun. A prank. Or to prove that you can, I guess. Isn’t that why a lot of stuff gets done? When you tire of trying to justify something that would fly in the face of current needs and desires, you simply create a niche product. Create a want. Wants usually evolve into needs –mutate into needs, at any rate. Look at Selfies and their requirement for sticks. Or bell-bottomed trousers –no, wait, that was a while ago…

My point, I think, is that gender may be rendered redundant not by increasing social awareness of its variations, but rather because of its dispensability. Why keep something you don’t really need? History will decide, of course, but hindsight tends to come down hard on things that outlive their time. Consider phlogiston. It was the postulated fire element that was contained by combustible things and was released when they caught fire. Of course! But who, apart from old people, have even heard of it? Or want to?

And then, in keeping with the air theme, there is the Miasma Theory which just assumed that disease was caused by ‘bad air’. Simple. Elegant. No need to bring in a lot of accessory stuff like animalcules and other things you couldn’t see anyway. Germs, let alone viruses prions and the like, were simply unnecessary and unduly complicated. Why dump many unknowns into an equation that could be solved by one charming known? Why mess with E = mc 2 when it isn’t a theory of everything, especially if it needs Quantum? Explanation isn’t everything, either…

Okay, so I’ve non sequitured again, but hopefully you see my concern. Obsolescence is one thing –we often persist past our best-before dates- but unplanned obsolescence is another creature entirely. It smacks of blundering about in dark corners hoping there are no unpleasant surprises -nothing that will sting in retrospect.

I am as excited as the next person about the prospects for the future, but experience teaches caution. The principle of unintended consequences is a favourite historical topic –almost as seductive as the ‘what if’s’ so popularized in historical fiction nowadays. Maybe there is nothing enchanted about that first introduction between egg and sperm. Nothing magical. Nothing necessary. Maybe life will carry on much as before and procreation will still scratch out a living between the sheets. And maybe it’s always good to have options -choices freely made and understood. Even needed, occasionally. We have always been condemned to live in interesting times –the Past was never an Eden.

And yet…


Do We Really Understand?

Okay, call me a cynic, or maybe even a curmudgeon, but I sometimes wonder just how much we understand about Information –and by extension, it’s relationship to Knowledge.

Information can be construed as the answer to a question or, seen from a different perspective, as that which has the potential to resolve uncertainty. Numbers, for example, are not information unless they pertain to something. And when we think of information in the form of data, it doesn’t necessarily require someone to receive it, but can stand alone, unwatched and unprocessed until summoned. Knowledge on the other hand can be thought of as the reception, collation, and subsequent processing of that data –requested, in other words. Whether that which stands in isolation, unprocessed and unused constitutes Knowledge is an interesting, but tricky issue –likely of the same ilk as ‘If a tree falls in the woods with no one around to hear it, does it still make a noise?’ that we all puzzled over in Philosophy 101 in University. Because data –information- has the potential to answer a question, does that automatically qualify it as knowledge even if there is no question? Even if it might not resolve any uncertainty?

I raise these issues not to transition into a discussion of information theory, but to ask how much we are furthered by information about issues that are incompletely understood –known?- even by experts in the field. I’m referring, of course, to our own DNA.

Scientists are accumulating more and more data about genes and their codes and loci on specific chromosomes. They are beginning to link particular code changes in these genes to specific conditions, and the process is just beginning. Progress seems to increase logarithmically. The promise of this information is enormous in terms of diagnosis and perhaps eventually, treatment.

I do wonder, however, whether it is valuable or premature to offer personalized genotypes as a commercial venture to anyone who asks for them. Clearly, there are situations when the information would be helpful when questions are asked of it: risks of a genetically-carried disease, hereditary lineage, or even paternity, as examples. But do we really know more about ourselves because some company has mapped our chromosomes? Without a question being posed to which the genetic sequences are the answer, is what is received useful, or pap? At this stage of our investigation of the genetic code, is an undirected map of base-pairs on a chromosome anything other than simply that: a small scale map of largely unnamed streets of a mysterious city that happens to have the label of the requester on it? A hieroglyph?

Undoubtedly, as the data accumulate, this mapping will progress to the stage where it becomes an essential guide to a city we wish –or need- to explore. And perhaps the store of information acquired will allow retrospective analysis of things whose importance we have yet to understand. Answer questions we don’t yet have –or at least can’t yet formulate in a way that could be solved.

In the meantime, however, I worry about that very personal and private information being made available against our wishes and perhaps to our detriment. Insurance companies, for example, employers –or maybe even an untrammeled government worried about threats of terrorism or contagion may request, or perhaps legislate that the genetic information be provided –especially if it has already been obtained. Unfortunately, at least at the time of this writing, there is no protection in Canada against discrimination based on genetics. There is, however, some legislation under review (Bill S-201) that addresses this. One hopes that its adoption will be soon, but it is a concern that certainly needs resolution before widespread adoption of personalized DNA should be considered. Once Pandora’s box has been opened, it might be too late, so we must think long and hard about what we decide.

Well considered safeguards are essential in advance -both for governments as well as for industry that may be tempted to oversell the potential. I stand with Hamlet in this: one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.

An Obstetrical Edition

Miscarriages –early pregnancy losses- have long been the subjects of research. They are unfortunately all too common, and until very recently, we were only aware of those that occurred after a noticeable menstrual delay –the tip of the iceberg, in other words.

Some progress has been made in understanding why they occur, of course –random genetic mistakes either from development, or from abnormalities in the sperm or egg DNA that happened to be involved, for example. But this type of knowledge is often after the fact -insufficient to predict or prevent the problem, although with in vitro fertilization (IVF) there are often techniques available to detect genetic flaws and guide the choice of fertilized egg to be implanted. This does little to address the issue in the much larger population attempting pregnancy in the more traditional, unaided fashion, however.

I was therefore intrigued by an article in the BBC news: that outlined a proposal to genetically modify some human embryos (not for implantation, be aware) to ‘…understand the genes needed for a human embryo to develop successfully into a healthy baby.’

I realize that, at first glance at any rate, this proposal seems to cross a boundary that has been hitherto sacrosanct: experimenting with human embryos. It seems to trespass on at least two traditional shibboleths. The first one –the more problematic and dogmatically based one- is that from the moment of conception, the embryo –or morula, once the fertilized egg has divided into 16 cells- is a person, or at least entitled to all the respect and privileges of a human being. This is more of a belief, a religious or moral tenet, than a demonstrable attribute of the embryo at this stage, though, and a more neutral consideration of its personhood would have to rely on either arguments from potential or its ability to survive outside of the uterus, should that be required.

The other, and maybe less religiously coloured objection, is the issue of unintended (or even intended) consequences: that to interfere with human DNA is to interfere with humanity itself and perhaps even the reason we are as we find ourselves –evolutionary adaptations that are the solutions to myriad problems of which we may be only dimly aware, if at all; and that we don’t really understand what we’re doing –or how to do it safely –i.e. without inadvertently affecting other things, even if we did. Like any ecosystem, everything is interdependent in one way or another: solve one problem and perhaps create another that you might not have even suspected was being modulated by the initial problem.

This, of course, is the thrust of the UK proposal. One can reasonably study animal models –mice, for example- only if they have comparable genes for early embryologic development. And as Dr Niakan, from the Francis Crick Institute, said: “Many of the genes which become active in the week after fertilisation are unique to humans, so they cannot be studied in animal experiments.” Initially, the study could have more benefits in IVF work – ‘Of 100 fertilised eggs, fewer than 50 reach the blastocyst stage, 25 implant into the womb and only 13 develop beyond three months…’ “We believe that this research could really lead to improvements in infertility treatment and ultimately provide us with a deeper understanding of the earliest stages of human life.”

Convinced? It’s a difficult one, isn’t it? Clearly, we need to understand how things work (as the study proposes) long before we attempt to modify them in any way. And if gene editing on a human embryo can be done, it is inevitable that it will be done by someone, somewhere, but perhaps with less stringent rules and guidelines to constrain it. So, should we just bite our collective tongues, and bow to progress? And is there really a choice?

I’m not sure where I stand on the issue of genome editing; I don’t think there is a one-size -fits-all solution, but I do think there is un bel compromis. The issue must be kept open for discussion, made public, in other words, so that at the very least it is not perceived as being done in secrecy and without identifiable or appropriate input. The pros and cons must be aired and in terms that all can understand. And the opinions of all of the various interest groups -both religious and secular- should be publicly and repetitively solicited. The left hand must know what the right hand is doing.

No, there is unlikely to be consensus; people will divide along predictable lines as I have suggested, but at least there will be a chance for an airing of the arguments, and an assessment of their merits or deficiencies that is available to all who care –a public catharsis. A mitigation…

But in the end, I think we must always be mindful of the dangers that Shakespeare intimated in his Much Ado About Nothing: ‘O, what men dare do! What men may do! What men daily do, not knowing what they do!’