What if you could see what your future baby looked like before it was even conceived? Well, a new company called GenePeeks is offering a service that does exactly that, by virtually mixing two people's DNA and creating a digital embryo, reports New Scientist.
The remarkable service works thanks to technology called "Matchright," which uses algorithms that can digitally recreate the process of genetic recombination. Possible embryos can then be virtually generated so prospective parents can get a glimpse of the genetic makeup of their potential baby. This could be particularly useful for women scanning for sperm donors at fertility clinics. The algorithms can run thousands of times for each donor, producing up to 10,000 simulated embryos per pairing.
GenePeeks' founders hope that the technology will help screen for the likelihood of a child inheriting a genetic disorder. But since it is also capable of screening for traits that aren't necessarily related to health, such as eye and skin pigmentation, height and even waist size, critics worry that the technology will be used to select for embryos based on superficial characteristics.
"It has the potential to change people's experience of what it means to be a parent," said Marcy Darnovsky of the non-profit Center for Genetics and Society in Berkley, California.
Lee Silver, one of the co-founders of GenePeeks, has reiterated that the technology's intended use is specifically for health screening, but has also said that what the patent is used for in future will be a business decision. Owning the patent on the method at least means that the firm can prevent others from using the technology in unintended ways.
"This is such a sensitive issue because we are on the cusp of being able to do very extreme things with the biological knowledge that is being developed," said Darnovsky. "It is important that people understand what the technical possibilities are."
The technology has other potential uses that could also be viewed as ethically ambiguous. For instance, infertile or gay couples could use it to get an idea about what their genetic children would look like, and then select a donor that will produce a child with similar traits. Such a selection process could be argued to be in the best interest of the future child. Psychologically, it could be beneficial for the child to resemble its social parents.
Regardless of the ethical quandaries, though, the technology is slated to get rolled out later this month at two U.S. fertility clinics. Women interested in using the service to screen donors should expect to pay around $1,995 for it. That could be a small price to pay for a parent's peace of mind.
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