Could CRISPR give men a biological off-switch for fertility?
CRISPR, the new technique of altering genes in both fully formed organisms as well as in fetuses, has received a lot of exciting press coverage.
Scientists propose it could be used to treat several conditions including congenital blindness as well as high cholesterol by altering the genes responsible.
As reported in Discover, there are even suggestions the technique could also be used to create a genetic option for male birth control.
Creating gene-based male birth control
The idea took root after researchers at Michigan State University reported the discovery of a gene that plays an essential role in sperm development.
Already scientists have used CRISPR to remove this gene in mice, resulting in their infertility.
Beyond having diminished testis in the mice, there don’t appear to be any side effects. This is extremely good news as many other approaches to male birth control have taken a hormonal approach, which can be tricky to balance correctly.
A pair of potential problems
Before using gene suppression to suppress male fertility, there are first two key issues to be overcome.
The lesser of these are questions of whether or not this CRISPR approach is reversible.
Right now, even the surgical option of a vasectomy can often be undone. This means that if a gene technique cannot be switched back it would be an all-or-nothing option and so a much harder sell to men.
The final concern is that a team of Stanford University researchers has released findings that 65% to 79% of human test subjects rejected the two common strains of the bacteria that are key to CRISPRs functionality.
While the Stanford results might seem to be a setback, it’s important to note that it hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed and even if their findings are confirmed there could be other CRISPR methods to be explored.
A sexually free future
If these two hurdles are overcome, and if the procedure passes human trials, this could mean a profound change in not just how we view birth control but also human sexuality.
Playing Nostradamus, let’s imagine a society where once a boy enters puberty he undergoes a gene procedure rendering him infertile.
This means that he would be able to explore all kinds of consensual opposite sex experiences without concerns for undesired pregnancies on the part of female partners.
This would also mean that, if these procedures become common, women would finally be freed of the constant responsibility for birth control. There’s even a chance that there might come a time when we will also discover a fertility gene in women that also be turned on and off at will.
This all could mean that even the concept of an unwanted child would be extinct, as men and women would be have to make a conscious decision to become fertile.
While it is essential to approach genetic engineering with trepidation it is equally important to see its positive potential.
Not the least of which that it could someday lead to a world where a child is always a choice and never an accident.
Image sources: Mike Towber, Andy Leppard, Steve Johnson