A Chinese scientist recently captured attention around the globe when he claimed to have created the world’s first genetically edited babies.  Embryos of twin girls were altered so they would not contract HIV from their infected father.  The news was met with understandable concern and outrage over the potential for designer babies.  Scientists shouldn’t “play God.”

A Wall Street Journal article (entitled “Meet the Scientists Bringing Back Extinct Species from the Dead”) explained the technology used in gene editing and people’s reaction to its application:

“The Crispr-Cas9 system consists of two main parts: an RNA guide, which scientists program to target specific locations on a genome, and the Cas9 protein, which acts as molecular scissors.  The cuts trigger repairs, allowing scientists to edit DNA in the process.  Think of Crispr as a cut-and-paste tool that can add or delete genetic information.  Crispr can also edit the DNA of sperm, eggs and embryos—implementing changes that will be passed down to future generations.  Proponents say it offers unprecedented power to direct the evolution of species.

In January 2013 scientists published papers demonstrating that, for the first time, they had successfully edited human and animal cells using Crispr.  The news sparked fears of so-called designer babies edited for traits like intelligence and athleticism, something scientists stay is still far off because of the complexity of those traits.  But editing of embryos for research is already under way.   In the past 18 months, researchers in the U.S. and China successfully edited disease-causing mutations in viable human embryos not intended for implant or birth.”

While scientists’ experiments with “de-extinction” of animals and the creation of superior athletes are highly controversial, Crispr also has salutary uses such as producing disease-resistant chickens and searching for human cures for Alzheimer’s and autism.

The Thoroughbred horse registries allow foals to be registered only if they have been conceived by a stallion covering a mare, thereby prohibiting artificial insemination, embryo transplants, and cloning.  Gene editing presents a new challenge for the registries because Crispr offers hope of correcting adverse genetic predispositions.

If gene editing could lead to offspring less prone to exercise-induced cardiovascular bleeding or to breakdowns that would be a compelling reason for the Jockey Club registries to relax their increasingly antiquated rules on foal eligibility.  The problem, as I see it, is that the line between improving the breed and creating a superior athlete is vague.  At any rate, the Jockey Clubs must wrestle with possibilities that heretofore would have seemed in the realm of science fiction.  In addition, if a scientist were to alter the embryo of a Thoroughbred would a registry even be able to detect that a change had been made?

Think about the potency and the implications of a sentence from the Wall Street Journal article about Crispr:   “Proponents say it offers unprecedented power to direct the evolution of species.”

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