Could we make a superhuman? © Warner Brothers

Could we make a superhuman?

The hero of the new Dune movie Paul Atreides has superhuman powers, a result of genetic engineering across many generations. Could selectively breeding a 'chosen one' ever become a reality?

Paul Atreides, the hero of Dune, discovers that he has been gifted with incredible, superhuman powers – such as precognition and omniscience. This is no accident. Paul is the result of painstaking genetic engineering and selective breeding over many generations by an organisation known as the Bene Gesserit.

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The question is: could you, in the real world, breed, or genetically edit, a ‘chosen one’?

In November 2018, the world was shocked by news that the first gene-edited human babies had been born in China. According to He Jiankui, the rogue scientist behind the project, the twin girls’ genetic make-up had been tweaked to give them innate resistance to HIV – because their father was HIV-positive.

This was done using a gene-editing technique called CRISPR-Cas9. This is essentially a genetic version of the search-and-replace in your word processor, which can scan a genome for a target chunk of genetic code and then replace it with a new custom sequence.

He has since been sentenced to three years in prison for breaching Chinese laws that ban the application of gene editing to human embryos. At present, only a small number of countries permit this, and nowhere is it legal for such embryos to be implanted in the womb. But as the technology matures this could change.

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“Within 30 years, it will probably be possible to make essentially any kind of change to any kind of genome,” says Prof Jennifer Doudna, of the University of California, Berkeley, who shared the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her role in the development of CRISPR.

“You could imagine that, in the future, we’re not subject to the DNA we inherit from our parents, but we can actually change our genes in a targeted way.”

Naturally, such modifications would be confined to the treatment and prevention of disease, and enhancing human capabilities, such as strength and intelligence, rather than endowing the subject with superhero powers. Even so, reservations remain around the DNA editing debate.

“The problem with gene editing is that genes don’t work in a simplistic one-to-one way for most of the complex traits people might want to breed selectively for, like strength, beauty and intelligence, and genes also interact with the environment around them,” says Angela Saini, author of Superior: The Return Of Race Science.

“More fundamentally, why would we want to do it at all? My ideal world is one in which we accept all people in their glorious, messy diversity as they are.”

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