Two of biotechnology’s most prolific and far-sighted researchers say they’re teaming up to start a company that intends to rewrite the rules of animal reproduction.
The company, provisionally named Ark Corporation, is being cofounded by stem-cell pioneer Robert Lanza and Harvard Medical School DNA expert George Church. [. . .]
But here’s the deal: the very same biotechnologies needed to reanimate lost species are going to have far, far greater financial and social impact when they’re applied to commercial breeding of livestock, pets, and even humans. [. . .]
Ark’s key technology is going to be induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells (see “Growing Heart Cells Just for You”). To make iPS cells, researchers take an ordinary skin cell and, by modifying it or adding certain chemicals, turn it into a potent stem cell that’s able to grow into any other tissue of the body, including eggs and sperm.
It’s exactly this ability to make sperm and eggs in the lab that opens the commercial possibilities Lanza and Church say their startup company will exploit. [. . .]
Beyond farm animals, iPS cells have even more mind-boggling possibilities in human reproduction. With this technology, it may be possible to create functional eggs and sperm for people who are infertile because of age or other issues.
Note that in the China Is Engineering Genius Babies stories statements like "embryo screening will allow parents to pick their brightest zygote and potentially bump up every generation's intelligence by five to 15 IQ points" refer to what's plausible with current IVF technology. Here, a relatively restricted number of embryos would be produced; they'd be sequenced or genotyped; and estimates of genomic IQ or other traits of interest would be used in choosing one or two of the embryos to implant. Again, there's nothing (beyond presently insufficient sample sizes) that prevents this from happening with our current understanding of genetics and existing reproductive technology.
Projecting forward very minimally, if it becomes possible to effectively and cheaply produce hundreds or thousands of eggs from skin cells, besides likely increasing the uptake of IVF with embryo screening by couples with normal fertility (ovarian hyperstimulation, etc., is not something I expect most women would rush to volunteer for in exchange for the promise their children will average 5 points higher in IQ) it should make possible much higher levels of selection per generation. A similar and potentially even greater increase in selective power might come from genetic screening of individual sperm cells prior to fertilization, which has now been demonstrated in mice. Beyond IQ, it should be similarly straightforward to select for any other heritable quantitative trait or for combinations of traits (height, longevity, physical ability, etc.).