cloning neandertals – can we? should we? is it true?

The Telegraph has a story on the possibility of cloning Neanderthals, with the fetching headline: ‘I can create Neanderthal baby, I just need willing woman.’ (You can read the NZ version on Stuff.)

My first thought was ‘eeewww’. (And, as a friend commented, it’s stories like this that get science a bad name.) Once past that rather visceral reaction, various questions popped up: just how feasible is this? Really? Has the researcher given any consideration to the ethical issues such a proposal generates? What about (epi)genetics, ecology & so on? And – for the money – how much of this ‘story’ accurately reflects what the scientist who was interviewed actually said, & how much of it is.. er… down to a combination of poor translation (the original article was in German-language paper Der Spiegel) and journalistic license?

Let’s deal with the last first: it would appear that the Daily Mail is responsible for the form in which this story hit the English-speaking world (oh, why am I not surprised by this?). And indeed, one of the quotes attributed to Harvard geneticist Professor Church strongly suggests the journalist wasn’t paying attention:

The professor claims that he could introduce parts of the Neanderthal genome to human stem cells and clone them to create a foetus that could then be implanted in a woman.

‘Parts’ of the genome would give you a Neanderthal? Implanting a ‘foetus’? Hellooooo.

Prof. Church is very firm that he hasn’t actively sought out volunteers for any potential, very-much-in-the-future surrogacy program. Rather, he was speaking theoretically of what was possible now that the Neanderthal DNA sequence is known. That’s good to hear, but I can’t help thinking that a little forethought might have avoided this whole furore. Science & scientists don’t need this sort of press. And let’s face it, people are more likely to remember the shock! horror! of the original story than they are to recall the subsequent, much less ‘exciting’ correction.

On the ethics front, bringing back an extinct race of humans from the dead (apart from the fact that there’s a little bit of their DNA in most of us) strikes me rather as treating them as objects. And what would be the justification for that? While there’s plenty of evidence that there are individuals around today who view other people in much the same way (ie as objects with no real rights or feelings about what’s happening to them), that is hardly a moral justification for resurrecting the Neanderthals. (And, before someone ever got to the point of cloning, there’d have to be some very serious examination of the ethics of surrogacy in a situation such as this.)

And what of the fact that they’d be brought back to an environment quite different to the one to which natural selection had shaped them? For example, in addition to having a physique (& probably physiology) best suited to cold environments, any cloned Neanderthal would be lactose-intolerant. And, in life, Neanderthals would have had their own microbiome: their own suite of micro-organisms living on and in their bodies and affecting them on a daily basis. For this hypothetical cloned individual, what would be the effect on their health of a microbiome that didn’t ‘match’?

On the genetics front (& Grant or David might like to comment here), there is a big difference between knowing the complete Neanderthal base sequence (or at least, the base sequence derived from a handful of individuals) and having a nuclear genome in a form that can be inserted into an enucleate egg (or stem cell, which was the focus of part of Prof. Church’s discussion with Der Spiegel). Plus, that wouldn’t be enough – the mitochondrial DNA of the egg cell would need to be replaced with Neanderthal mtDNA. Not to mention the effect of epigenetics on expression of those Neanderthal genes.

Yes, definitely some good learning opportunities there. I must try & work some of them into my own classes.

5 thoughts on “cloning neandertals – can we? should we? is it true?”

  • herr doktor bimler says:

    a little forethought might have avoided this whole furore.
    For instance, don’t talk to some douche from the Daily Mail, claiming to be a journalist.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    Many years ago there as a science fiction story. Time travelers brought back a Neanderthal baby and raised him. He achieved all kinds of outstanding physical and mental feats. The story starts out with him being inaugurated as President of the World, swearing to protect the World Constitution he wrote. Point of the story was that he came from a time when natural selection on humans was really harsh.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    To be fair, the original interview was with Der Spiegel & the Daily Fail picked it up after that. But Dr Church does seem to have been somewhat naive in his approach to the interview.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Another of the comments attributed to the interviewee was that reconstituting a Neanderthal population would do wonders for our gene pool… Again, very thin ethical ice.

  • George Church is known to speak very freely to media, or at least that’s what I’ve read.
    He’s very well-known in genetics/genomics/bioinformatics circles. He has, for example, been a strong advocate for people submitting their personal genome sequences into a public databases for quite a few years; there’s some (more niche) controversy over that, too.

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