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  • Subject area(s): Engineering
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  • Published on: 7th September 2019
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Genetically enhancing human intelligence

Introduction

Genetics is a relatively new field of science, it was over only 50 years ago that Watson and Crick discovered the structure of the DNA molecule, which we now know to store these genes that contain the instructions of how an organism will develop throughout its life, in simple terms genetics affect everything about every living thing on earth. Since then the field of genetics has become a gateway to a multitude of new ideas and possibilities for scientists around the world. With the recent advances in research and technology, scientists have been able to answer questions that were once thought to be incomprehensible and do things that were once thought to be impossible.

The biggest step in advance in genetic science came from the completion of a project called The Human Genome Project in April 2003. For the first time in history scientists now have the ability to read the complete genetic blueprint responsible for the development of a human being.

As a result science had entered a whole new era of medicine through the study of genetics. By discovering how our genes effect an individual’s phenotype, scientists have been able to identify and understand the role specific genes have in the development of various diseases a person could possess, whether it be from birth or one which they develop later in life. From this they have been able to create and develop new medicines and treatments in order to combat and prevent over 1,800 genetic diseases through genetic engineering.  Genetic engineering is the direct manipulation or modification of an organism’s genetic make-up, also known as their genome. This is achieved using various biotechnology and most often only involves manipulating a specific gene rather than the whole genome.

The Human Genome Project didn’t just aid in the medical aspect, scientists have also been able to find connections between the ways our genes are organised and certain traits we exhibit, things such as sex, eye colour and hair colour are all a result of how our genes are organised. It then seems plausible to assume that we could also discover gene organisations that code for traits such as high intelligence.

This investigation will attempt to identify and further explore various methods which could be used in an attempt to increase human intelligence through genetic modification, including the potential benefits from such a genetic enhancement.  

Methods of gene modification

With the new advances in biotechnology it is possible to manipulate specific areas of an organism’s genome in order to achieve a desired outcome in its phenotype. This process is most commonly known as genetic modification, it is most frequently used in agriculture and medicine. By transferring genes it simplifies the production of various medicines, creates more resistant and stronger plants and has even produced glow in the dark pets.

There are multiple ways to modify an organism’s genes. The one that is most frequently used in science in genetic engineering. This refers to the customisation of an organisms DNA with the intent to express a specific or series of traits. This is usually done while the organism is only a single fertilised cell. Another important method is gene therapy, this is the attempt to modify the DNA of some or even all of an at least partially mature organisms cells, usually done using specially modified viruses. This method has been successful in treating certain human congenital deficiencies. Selective breeding is the final technique, most commonly used in crops and livestock in order to produce the best offspring for their intended use. By taking two parents which carry the desired characteristics, breeding them together to produce offspring, then by choosing the best of the offspring and breeding them together and repeating the process with the next generation to ensure that the desired characteristic remains prominent.

With these methods readily available it is clear that should we find a genetic pattern which determines the level of a human’s intelligence that we could then manipulate the gene in order to achieve a greater level of intelligence. The first step then would be to discover whether a person’s genome has the key to predetermine their optimum level of intelligence as they develop through life.

The Human Genome Project

As mentioned in the introduction it was the Human Genome Project which first mapped out a humans genome. From this scientists have found multiple links between the way our genes are expressed and certain traits we exhibit. To further explore how this could aid in finding the key to greater intelligence it is important to fully understand what The Human Genome Project is and its importance.  

Below is a timeline of the major milestone of DNA sequencing that is The Human Genome Project:

1985 Human Genome Project was proposed.

1990 Human Genome Project begins.

1992 The first map of all genes in the entire human genome is published.

1999 The first human chromosome, chromosome 22, is completely sequenced. Passing the 1 billion base pairs milestone.

2001 First draft of the entire human genome is published.

2008 First high resolution map of genetic variation among humans is published.

The genetics of intelligence                                                                                                      

Intelligence is a very complex trait and is no doubt the result of thousands of genes interacting in unique ways in which we are yet to understand. The genetics of this has been controversial for some time now. The main issue being that intelligence itself is difficult to define. It has been based entirely on scores and IQ tests created by psychologists. Therefore the current definition of intelligence has been “The general factor common to a large number of diverse cognitive (IQ) tests” (Jones, 2009, p.231). It has been estimated that an average of between 60 and 80 per cent of the variance in IQ test scores could be genetic.

Cognitive genomics project

Applications of gene modification

The first application of gene modification was applied to mice, using growth hormone genes. It turned out to be highly successful as the introduction of rat, human and bovine growth hormone genes resulted in the production of much larger mice. This result encouraged the idea that growth hormones could be engineered into more beneficial animals such as pigs, cows and fish in order to create a faster production of superior animals.

However it became obvious that gene modification may not always work out as intended. The transgenic pigs did grow faster than the non-transgenic ones but only when they were fed large amounts of protein and the female pigs become sterile. So far there have been no transgenic pigs or cows produced that are viable for commercial use. Fish on the other hand have done swimmingly well with the genetic modifications applied. Transgenic salmon grow six times faster than normal salmon and covert their food to body weight much more efficiently, however they have still to be authorised for commercial use.   

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