Many years ago, an eager young country Farm Bureau president invited a local ag entrepreneur to speak at the annual Farm-City Banquet. This passionate businessman gave an enthusiastic and remarkable detailed description of his cutting edge business, including the procedures and challenges. Only after the stunned silence and golf-applause when he finished did the shell-shocked president realize most people, even in rural areas, were not really prepared for the nitty-gritty of a boar stud farm.
That event raised my awareness of pace of adoption of artificial insemination and other reproductive technologies across any species where breeding was crucial to commercial success. I soon reached the conclusion that domesticated animals of value, from poodles to horses, would seldom engage in anything like a natural sex life.
Slowly, however, such propagation techniques began to show up as common practice in another species: homo sapiens. For a variety of reasons, in vitro fertilization (IVF), results in about 65,000 children a year in the US alone. While less than 2% of all births, the procedure is likely to become much more common.
Driving the demand for IVF are cultural factors, like later childbirth for women. Another troubling fertility issue is the likelihood of sharply decreased sperm counts, especially in Western countries. Ag has been tangentially affected by this research as scientists looking for causes raise alarms about endocrine disrupters, often pointing to pesticides.
The whole burgeoning field of fertility services has been the beneficiary of agriculture’s wholehearted adoption. With the demand for animal reproductive services came research and training for the large number of people with such skills. The equipment for sonography, storage, microscopic manipulation, and ancillary devices had a lucrative market future to trigger investment. While human fertility was still developing at a more rarified scientific level, affordable, improving tools and knowledge were at hand to speed the process.
All this was merely prelude to the possibilities new discoveries presented. CRISPR gene manipulation is the most important to date. No sooner had early papers been published on the results of gene editing with this tool than previously unimaginable leaps forward were possible. Almost overnight, the already blurry lines of genetic heredity became nearly imperceptible. Consider this passage from Carl Zimmer’s Her Mother’s Laugh (reviewed last month):
“Some researchers think that in vitro gametogenesis will trigger an explosion in the test-tube-baby business. Henry Greely, a bioethicist at Stanford University Law School, explored this possibility in his 2016 book The End of Sex and the Future of Human Reproduction. Greely speculated about a future world “where most pregnancies, among people with good health coverage, will be started not in bed but in vitro and where most children have been selected by their parents from several embryonic possibilities.” Today, parents who use in vitro fertilization can choose from about half a dozen embryos. In vitro gametogenesis might offer them a hundred or more. Shuffling combinations of genes together so many times could produce a much bigger range of possibilities. Even after ruling out the embryos with disease-causing mutations, parents would still have many embryos left to choose from. They might pick embryos with variants that could affect the color of their children’s eyes. Or they might follow Stephen Hsu’s call, and pick out embryos that have a combination of variants that have been linked to higher intelligence scores. But the implications of in vitro gametogenesis go far beyond these familiar scenarios—to ones that Hermann Muller never would have thought of. Induced pluripotent stem cells have depths of possibilities that scientists have just started to investigate. Men, for instance, might be able to produce eggs. A homosexual couple might someday be able to combine gametes, producing children who inherited DNA from both of them. One man might produce both eggs and sperm, combining them to produce a family—not a family of clones, but one in which each child draws a different combination of alleles. It would give the term single-parent family a whole new meaning. The possibilities go on. Instead of three-parent babies, one can envision a four-parent child. It might be possible someday for four people to swab their cheeks and have induced pluripotent stem cells produced. Scientists could then turn the cells into sperm or eggs, which could then be used to make embryos. Two people would produce one set of embryos, and the other two would produce a second.”
Take some time to memorize that word – gametogenesis – and especially the in vitro (IVG) version. We are on the brink of making eggs and sperm from any human cell. Add in the growing body of knowledge about what genes affect which attributes (height, immunity, intelligence, etc.) or contribute to disease (Huntington’s, diabetes, etc.). For the ever-richer top layer of the global population, the temptation to alter offspring at conception (or before!) will be irresistible, I think.
The excerpt above is unsettling enough, but letting those possibilities ferment in your mind soon raises disturbing conflicts with our cultural, moral, and religious principles. Now consider the global nature of this research. Politically stacking the US Supreme Court will be a futile gesture if the procedures are done in Shanghai or Geneva. Genetic tourism could become as common as medical tourism. Our current drive toward international isolation will hamper any efforts to direct the path of human reproduction.
The future of human reproduction is already farther down this path than most realize, unless they are dealing with a fertility problem. The risks to individuals and our species are enormous, but the eugenic lure and enormous wealth available to pursue it are present. Visions from Brave New World or even Star Trek no longer look quite as silly.
Already the idea that children can learn something about sex from watching cows in a pasture is doubtful. In fact, the image of a cowboy would be greatly changed if the public knew how much time was spent riding the range versus having an arm in a cow.
De-naturalizing reproduction was done rapidly and with little soul-searching for our livestock. We are unprepared for the challenge to our own humanity this work facilitated.