There was a time when parents of newborns were perfectly content to know only a few basic things about their babies: their height, their weight, their apgar score, and which side of the family should get the credit for making the kid so adorable. But a graduate student at the University of California, Davis named Razib Khan wanted to know much, much more about his son, born a little more than a week ago. And what Khan did, he contends, will become standard procedure for moms and dads of the 21st century.
After he managed to convince his wife’s doctor to provide him with a small tissue sample from the placenta during the second trimester of her pregnancy, Khan, a doctoral candidate studying feline genetics, was able to roughly sequence his son’s genome—essentially giving he and his wife the ability to glimpse into their child’s future. By most accounts, that made the boy the first healthy human in the U.S. to have his genetic makeup deciphered before he was born.
Doctors do genetic testing of fetuses now, but only for diagnostic reasons—for instance, if the doctor believes the developing child may have a birth defect. Khan had no compelling medical reason to explore his baby’s genes before he was born. His motivation, he told M.I.T’s Technology Review, was “more cool than practical.”
What happens, for instance, if a genetic map indicates an unborn child will be prone to a particularly debilitating disease when they reach adulthood? Would that make parents consider terminating the pregnancy? Then there’s the matter of genome editing, which could soon make it possible to change a baby’s DNA long before the onset of a disease. For instance, the parents of a baby girl with the gene that significantly raises the risk of developing breast cancer may be able to choose to have it removed. That seems a reasonable choice. On the other hand, what if the same process would allow parents to increase the likelihood that their child will be particularly athletic or have a certain hair or eye color? That makes the concept of tailor-made kids closer to reality than science fiction.
Only time will tell.