Last week, Der Spiegel ran an interview with Harvard professor George Church, a “pioneer in synthetic biology, a field whose aim is to create synthetic DNA and organisms in the laboratory” and author of Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves.
It’s a fascinating interview if stuff like this fascinates you. The first section deals with the prospect of recreating Neanderthals or other extinct species from their DNA.
SPIEGEL: Setting aside all ethical doubts, do you believe it is technically possible to reproduce the Neanderthal?
Church: The first thing you have to do is to sequence the Neanderthal genome, and that has actually been done. The next step would be to chop this genome up into, say, 10,000 chunks and then synthesize these. Finally, you would introduce these chunks into a human stem cell. If we do that often enough, then we would generate a stem cell line that would get closer and closer to the corresponding sequence of the Neanderthal. We developed the semi-automated procedure required to do that in my lab. Finally, we assemble all the chunks in a human stem cell, which would enable you to finally create a Neanderthal clone.
SPIEGEL: And the surrogates would be human, right? In your book you write that an “extremely adventurous female human” could serve as the surrogate mother.
Church: Yes. However, the prerequisite would, of course, be that human cloning is acceptable to society.
The Daily Mail picked up this interview and claimed that Church was actually preparing to create a Neanderthal clone rather than simply speculating on the possibility. Their headline and subhead read:
Wanted: ‘Adventurous woman’ to give birth to Neanderthal man – Harvard professor seeks mother for cloned cave baby
His ambitious plan requires a human volunteer willing to allow the DNA to be put into stem cells, then a human embryo
The Boston Herald talked to George Church to clear up the mess.
Church said his phone was ringing off the hook yesterday with reporters from around the world calling to talk to what they believed, and no doubt hoped, was a modern-day Dr. Moreau — the H.G. Wells character who created weird hybrid animals.
He suggested poor translation skills may be part of the problem.
“I’m certainly not advocating it,” Church said. “I’m saying, if it is technically possible someday, we need to start talking about it today.”
Church said his own work focuses on ways to use genetics, DNA and genome sequencing to aid in improving health care and developing synthetic fuels, materials and other products — not reproducing ancient human species.
If this incident is any indication, the prospects for an intelligent public conversation about this technology are not good.