Razib Khan's son is just a few days old, but his future is already mapped out. Genetically speaking, that is.
The baby is likely the first in the U.S. to be born healthy after having his entire genetic makeup sequenced before birth. DNA sequencing , or genome sequencing , is sometimes (but rarely) done on fetuses to determine genetic abnormalities or mutations. And it doesn't just reveal potential issues that will arise at birth — these types of tests will show, for example, if the mutation associated with Alzheimer's is present in DNA.
But Khan, a graduate student and a genetics blogger, wasn't really anticipating health problems in his son. Using a tissue sample from the placenta of the unborn baby, a sequencing machine in his lab, and free online software called Promethease, Khan sequenced the DNA himself, for reasons "more cool than practical."
It should be emphasized that DNA sequencing is not the same as genetically modifying the baby. Khan did not "design" his baby — he simply (well, not so simply) deciphered the map of his genome.
What did he find? Not much. "It’s mostly pretty boring. So that is good," Khan says of his son's DNA. A lot of work went into that determination; getting his hands on the placenta tissue was no easy feat. His wife underwent a biopsy to test the baby for missing, duplicate, or broken chromosomes (which was not enough information for Khan), and the company that administered the test was reluctant to send the placenta remnants back, requiring a doctor's note.
Right now, decoding the DNA of a fetus is not commonplace, and not easy to have done on a whim. Right now, the ethics of it are questioned — finding a genetic mutation could prompt an abortion, when the baby may never even end up displaying symptoms. But according to Art Beaudet, chairman of molecular genetics at Baylor College of Medicine, that will all be different in less than a decade.
"In five years we will be offering [genome] sequencing for all routine pregnancies in the first trimester," he says.
Khan seems to back that assertion. A May post on his blog reads, "I imagine that whole genome sequencing of fetuses from DNA derived from blood draws from the mother will be totally conventional within 10 years. The future is here. Deal with it."
If you had the choice, would you decode your baby's DNA before birth?