Designer grandchildren – A scenario for the acceptance of germ-line cell editing with CRISPR/Cas

Corrado Nai (corrado.nai@tu-berlin.de)  


A DIY approach advocates for the democratized and decentral use of genome editing, but at the same time this will not prevent – and might even favour – a misuse of the technology by individuals with less noble intents. It is worth to note that, even though it is said that “any idiot could do it,” the CRISPR technology is still beyond reach for non-scientists, among other due to the lack of formal training, high costs and the uncertain legal situation. Arguably, no definite consensus on the use of the technology for genome editing – as for any new technology – can be ever achieved. More realistically, and as history showed us, a status quo will be reached that will more-or-less rationally balance pros and cons of the technology and will be inevitably driven by its “daily” use and technical advances.

Clearly, a participative discourse around the use of the CRISPR/Cas technology based on informed opinions is acutely needed. As working scientists, we realize first-hand how knowledge generated in the lab is difficult to translate to the general public; also, we occasionally observe how the decision of the public toward the use or ban of a certain technology is driven by emotional arguments rather than rational ones. In the specific case of human germ-line editing, we observe how the broad discourse about the CRISPR/Cas technology is often directed toward the emergence of so-called “designer baby,” rather than fostering a dialogue on its positive applications or its technical implementations.

As a thought experiment, we envision a future in which the decision about the use of the genome-editing technique in humans will be postponed to future generations as a way to shrink responsibility. In this scenario, human germ-line cells will be modified only once – by introducing into the genome the sequence for the endonuclease Cas9. Such “Cas9 progeny” will decide if and when edit its own genome, e.g. by ingesting or injecting itself with the corresponding guide RNA. Feasibility of this scenario is shown by the fact that scientific investigations are currently directed to enhance in vivo (somatic) genome editing, while a “Cas9 mouse” bearing in its genome the information to produce the Cas9 protein has been recently described. It will be left to the “Cas9 progeny” to decide if the cas9 sequence should be passed on to their own progeny – or removed from the genome by a reverse editing of germ-line cells.

Poultry gender control

Sebastián López Castellanos (slopezcastellanos@gmx.net)


The huge number of male baby chicks without direct use for the food industry represents an unpleasant side effect of large-scale chicken breeding for egg production, and their culling ('schreddern') is connected with questions regarding costs, hygiene and most of all ethical standards. Here, a new approach to this problem is proposed using CRISPR-Cas technology. The main idea is simple but powerful and consists of using CRISPR-Cas delivered by modied virus particles to specifically insert a lethal mutation to the Y-chromosome, thus disrupting the sperm cells carrying the Y-chromosome in male animals used in reproduction farms. The sperm cells carrying the X-chromosome would be left unscathed and thus every born chick would necessarily be female.

The proposed approach to control the birth of male chicks can be expanded to also control the birth of female chicks. Although both male and female animals can be used for broiler meat production, the parent animals (parent stock) to produce a hybrid broiler chicken are from different genetic lines and are bred separately - only animals of one sex are needed for the parent generation, resulting again in chick culling. The production of roosters which can only pass the X- or the Y-chromosome to their offspring would be a huge step towards a more controlled breeding procedure and above all, minimize the senseless suffering of unwanted chicks. Even more, this powerful approach has the potential to fundamentally change the breeding procedures of agricultural animals, since a new and decisive control step is added to the breeding methods repertoire of farmers by allowing to choose the gender of the offspring, of no matter which animal.

However, the proposed procedure bears risks that need to be addressed. It has been shown that epitopes specific to sperm cells are conserved to a wide extent throughout different vertebrate species. To prevent the targeting of other species, which could potentially have devastating effects, the spread of the virus particles would need to be highly controlled and limited to unique recognition sites for the specific rooster sperm cells used. The proposed gender control mechanism raises further questions because in theory it might be modified to be applied in humans, making it essential to carefully evaluate all risks and ethical implications that come along with it. It should therefore be only considered an option after adequate guidelines for its use have been established and approved by society and the scientific community.

Biological sculpting: sculpting living entities

reiner maria matysik (mail@reinermatysik.de)


Ich bin im zusammenhang mit meiner berufung als professor für plastisches gestalten an die kunsthochschule burg giebichenstein in halle dabei ein biolabor für designer und künstler aufzubauen. bisher bestimmen designer das aussehen und unsere umwelt durch die gestaltung von artefakten wie möbeln, kleidung, technischen gebrauchsgegenständen wie autos, aber auch kommunikation on- und offline und unzählbarem anderen. in zukunft werden designer auch organismen gestalten. hier soll diskutiert werden ob und wie studierenden die aktuelle crispr technik verfügbar gemacht werden. in diesem rahmen suche ich nach informationen und austausch über die möglichkeiten die in dieser technik liegen. dabei interessiert mich nicht der „normale“ wissenschaftlich-biologische rahmen sondern der mögliche umgang damit in wissenschaftsfernen bereichen wie kunst und design. fragen, die ich klären möchte sind u.a.: wie kann den studierenden diese dynamik und brisanz von biologie heute nahegebracht werden?auf lange sicht möchte ich einen studiengang biodesign etablieren. die hochschule in halle bietet sehr spezifische studienmöglichkeiten wie virtual reality, textil, glas oder spiel- und lerndesign an. der neue studiengang würde das angebot in richtung biologie erweitern. was kann crispr für das design und die kunst bieten? naturstudium und anatomie hatten für die kunst eine feste bedeutung. in den kunstakademien werden sie kaum noch gelehrt. dabei haben sie eine neue aktualität. unser verhältnis zur natur hat sich grundlegend verändert. künstler und designer müssen die möglichkeit, natürliches auf bisher unvorstellbare weise zu manipulieren in ihren arbeiten reflektieren oder nutzen. wir erleben seit jahrzehnten eine zunahme von transgenen organismen. diese zugerichteten lebenden entitäten können ein völlig neues arbeitsfeld von gestaltern werden. biofakte, durch die das, was früher als natur galt, wirkungsmotiviert organisiert wird und zielgerichtet funktioniert sind gestaltete organismen. unser traditioneller begriff von natur und biologie verschwimmt, vielleicht ist er sogar verloren. die beschäftigung mit crispr wirft also die frage auf, wo die grenze zwischen biologischem und zivilisatorischem, zwischen natur und kultur anzusetzen ist. daher könnten kunst und gestaltung durch naturstudium und naturgestaltung im labor kann umriss und grenzen des biologischen sichtbar machen.

Biological castes

Niklas Farke (niklasf@gmx.net) & Kai Libicher (KaiLibicher@gmx.de)


We want to provide more food for thought with another idea on social applications. It follows a similar concept as gene drives, which proliferate certain genes in subsequent generations of a population by editing individuals’ germ lines. The social standing and juristic convictions of an individual could be expanded to their descendants by imprinting them in their genome. A more dramatic version of this idea involves the selective breeding of a human working class, much like docile cattle compared to their wildtype forms. This social class of people would not only be limited by financial/educational/environmental conditions, but also by a biological one. Today any human being may arguably still improve their social status by effort and fortune. This could however no longer be the case if an elite established hard-coded barriers in the human genome.

Speculative Scenario of gene-editing and psycho-hormonal conditions

Emilia Tikka (tikkastudio@gmail.com)


My project proposal for the retreat, draws a speculative scenario, which envisions a new frontier in gene- editing where Cripr-cas9 is being used to create new approach to treat mental conditions such as depression based on hormone unbalance. Instead of dream of physically optimized bodies, I want to propose an idea that brings out possibilities to use gene-editing to modify the mental and emotional level of the body and on the other hand raises questions, if we are willing to modify functions in bodies that are strongly connected to psyche. This scenario could raise critical questions such as, do we want our “emotions” and feelings to be modified with gene-editing? If it would be possible, would we do it instead of eating medication causing unwanted side effects? Could genetic mental illnesses be treated with gene drives?

My work as a designer at the UdK MA Design program concentrates to research on the new perspectives that design can bring to the discourses of synthetic biology and it`s societal implications. By taking an approach of speculative design, my aim is to design plausible future scenarios in order to create discussion. “By presenting people with fictional products, services, and systems from alternative futures people can engage critically with them as citizen-consumers. Being faced with a complex mix of contradictory emotions and responses opens up new perspectives on the debate about biotechnology.” (Speculative Everything 2013, MIT Press, Dunne & Raby, p. 48).

However the promises of the synthetic biology`s aim to provide future changing solutions, the field is raising critical questions about ethics, social questions, legal issues and safety risks. When tinkering with life ethical questions are unavoidable. The aim to harness biology to medium and material for design with grand promises, it also comes with questions of ownership of the living material and unintentional (or intentional) damage of this new technology. Being able to see different solutions and possible futures, without falling on the trap of dystopia or utopia, this is the point where design can be used as a tool to bring out new unexpected ideas to use synthetic biology and gene-editing.