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I asked this question many years ago and was told by my molecular biology professor that humans were (simply) more complicated than goats.

So, I didn't get a straight answer, but supposing he told the truth, what's the problem? Or are people really more complex than goats, from an engineering or genetic standpoint?

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    $\begingroup$ A molecular biology professor said "humans were (simply) more complicated than goats". Did (s)he really say that?! I know little about cloning but it sounds wrong to me. The main difference is likely to be a difference of ethics, not biology. $\endgroup$
    – Remi.b
    Aug 12, 2016 at 20:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Remi.b It's the truth. So, I also asked a related question on the philosophy SE: What is the ethical reason for avoiding genetic engineering in humans? Please chime in if you can shed light on that! $\endgroup$ Aug 12, 2016 at 20:06
  • $\begingroup$ Please state your question clearly without reference to the title so it can be considered independently. We are not interested in your personal history, only what you are asking and what effort you have made to find an answer. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Jun 17, 2017 at 18:53

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The question you are asking is an ethical problem rather than a biological one. This particular nature article highlights the problem I am speaking about. In brief, children afflicted with SCID were subjected to what at the time was termed as a pioneering retroviral treatment. The idea being you replace the defective gene with the real one, in case of the quoted study, of 11 patients, 9 were cured and one of these babies developed leukemia due to the treatment. This was one of the first trials and it showed how these treatments can go awry.

Fast forward to today, last year you may have heard, something called the three parent babies garnered a lot of attention. This is basically mitochondrial donation, where a third-party provides mitochondria for IVFs for reasons where parents opting for IVFs may not be able to undergo successful IVFs due to mitochondrial mutations. This posed and still poses a serious ethical question, because what you are doing is mixing heritable DNA between lineages, please note that most geneticists will never cross this line, i.e. editing the genome such that the offspring carries the edited genome. Almost always the modified individuals are sterile (I know of no GMO crop which is not sterile)

But not to say, we have done nothing in terms of genetic engineering.

Scientists for the same reason (A human life is more important than any animal's) are wary of editing the human genome directly, so we now we also have something called siRNA treatment is just one example. And this is a list of siRNA based drugs which were in various stages of clinical trials in 2013. I know of a few which entered trial since then.

Lastly, this is just the tip of the iceberg, there's a whole lot which could be said on this topic, but it boils down to the same ethical problems.

Just so you know, since 2001, we have a lot of newer genome editing tools, such as TALENs and CRISPR-Cas. But remember, they still have the same problem as retroviruses from 2001, the issue about off-targets.

What if your tool targets a region which it isn't supposed to target?

Will another child develop a condition due to the treatment?

To avoid such an issue, we need to understand much better how the genome works, and sadly still we don't know enough. I cannot quote the study here because I have no idea where it is published, but at a recent conference I heard a talk from a lady about how retroviral integration works. The idea being, if retroviruses don't need specific integration sites, they should integrate at the first genomic region they encounter, that is not the case. I will not go into more detail. But I hope you have some food for thought.

UPDATE ON Genetic Engineering at a preconception stage


This is a link to the Nature article on Venter's minimal cell. There also exists an artificial Yeast genome page. The point I am trying to make is, we are really at the basic stages even now.

I will outline to you the behemoth scale problem we are facing.

2002: The first human genome draft is published. All the media is rife with stories about how we are going to unlock the secret to life.

Since then, DNA methylation and histone modifications have come to the foray as regulators of genome functionality.

We knew that DNA was transcribed into RNA and translated into protein. Noncoding RNAs came to the foray and messed up everything.

We thought that DNA functionality was governed by DNA methylation and Histone modifications, come 2009, we saw the first major article on Chromatin architecture. We understood that the genome has switches called Enhancers and promoters which regulated when and for how long RNA is transcribed. But sometimes these switches were so far away, we did not know how they switched on their target genes.

The problem can be summarized as this, making an artificial bacteria is easier than a human. In humans you have multiple layers of regulation, there's the DNA, where one part is silent (heterochromatin) and one part is active (Euchromatin), DNA methylation and histone modifications affect how genes are expressed, these modifications allow opening of the DNA so that genes can be expressed, The DNA is further compartmentalised (architecture) so that switches only affect nearby genes in 3D space. Non-coding RNAs act as messenger in such areas relaying proteins to their target DNA regions. So the cell is a mess!

Not to say that goat biology is simpler, just that a goat's life is cheaper than a human's. So we wouldn't feel a thing while "euthanising" goats for the advancement of mankind.

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  • $\begingroup$ I had not heard about 3 parent babies... but I must be psychic or something because I was just thinking about it earlier today! Cool articles. But I would say that retroviral techniques are not really relevant with respect to what I mean. I understand the faulty tech- especially with multicellular organisms. I really meant engineering at preconception-stage. $\endgroup$ Aug 12, 2016 at 20:42
  • $\begingroup$ Ahh...that needs a more detailed explanation. $\endgroup$ Aug 12, 2016 at 20:45
  • $\begingroup$ Well, I think you did a good job pointing out the faults with the current progress with respect to later stages. But I would love it if you could add details regarding the technical problems at the single cell stage. Are there design or technical hurdles which make engineering more difficult for humans than other animals? $\endgroup$ Aug 12, 2016 at 20:58
  • $\begingroup$ Well, I do feel bad for an animal that suffers. But + for calling my teacher a rotten liar (ha!)... but seriously he was a decent person. $\endgroup$ Aug 12, 2016 at 21:19
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There's a separate Stack Exchange for ethics, go there if you want to argue about that.

The first problem is how little is known about the functions of every gene. To properly roll out gene mods for humans, you have to know all the interactions of the original genes and their products and have an accurate computer model that predicts problems and other effects of the upgraded versions

Another problem: re-use of parts of the genome. In particular, some genes are used for several purposes, which means you could upgrade something and completely break something that would seem unrelated. It's similar to manually editing a compressed file's dictionary - changing 1 bit/base of compressed file content changes several in the output.

Then there's the problem of unexpected edits. What happens if your gene-editing framework misses and modifies something it shouldn't?

Assuming you ever get it working at a cost that people (or at least the military) will pay, you now have to figure out how to deliver the gene mods. Invasive or non-invasive? Retrovirus? Biocompatible DNA-producing chip? Update framework? Ability to roll back a bad update?

Cloning is even harder because you have to replicate the proper development conditions and there are all sorts of "gotchas" such as imprinting.

In short, humans might need to undergo an initial adaptation stage where these "gotchas" are gradually edited out and a synthetic programmable DNA editing and updating organ gets added - as a prerequisite for further upgrade.

With all of these difficulties, it's entirely possible that the best path to "Human 2.0" might be upgrade through machine parts maintained by microscale robots.

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