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Just a few years ago most scientists thought that the technical barriers to eliminating some inheritable diseases and producing designer babies through genetic engineering would keep that technology on the back burner for decades, if not centuries.

But a new report out of The Genetics & Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University points to recent developments that could "catapult us over what were understood to be the principal technical obstacles" to changing the genetic code so that future generations would be free from the threat of certain diseases. Or perhaps bigger and stronger. Or smarter. Or prettier.

It's called "human germline genetic modification." Germline comes from the word germination, and it means the seed, or the egg, and the various processes that begin a new life. It is different from somatic genetic engineering, which seeks to alter or replace genes in a person with a disease. That alteration is not passed on to the offspring, whereas germline changes will affect all future generations of the altered embryo.

It's similar to cloning, but it has received far less public scrutiny,...