A pioneering Harvard geneticist suggests that the day is coming when we'll want to reverse-engineer the neanderthal genome and pass its advantages to our own descendants
It reads like something out of a fantasy novel from the 1960s: "Wanted: a free-spirited woman open to having a child."
There's one hitch though.
The Harvard professor searching for the willing woman wants her to bear a neanderthal child whose DNA he's cooked up in his lab since the 1980s.
According to an interview in German magazine Der Spiegel, Harvard University genetics professor George Church, 58, is actively seeking a woman to carry a cloned neanderthal, a species close to humans that disappeared 33,000 years ago.
Church told Der Spiegel that the hard part is done; he knows how to sequence the neanderthal genome (gathered from fossils in Europe), chop it up, synthesize it and introduce it into a human stem cell. After that process is completed ad nauseam, to perfect the stem cell line, all the chunks of DNA would be assembled in the human stem cell and be ready for introduction into a woman.
In 2006, 454 Life Sciences began a project with the Max Planck Institute to sequence the genetic code of a 30,000-year-old neanderthal woman. Now that the sequencing is nearly complete, there is a possibility that a living person, with the help of a willing woman, can be completed.
As eccentric and ambitious as Church’s idea may be, he understands its impossibility in today's world. He told Spiegel that his experiment could not be accomplished until society accepts the premises of human cloning, which the U.N. currently bans. While there is no American statute that explicitly outlaws the practice, the state of Massachusetts, home to Harvard, has enacted laws that prohibit reproductive cloning, though the commonwealth allows for therapeutic cloning, which uses replicated cells in transplants and medicine.
Professor Church insists his intent isn't to grab attention. He says he wants to promote diversity and learn from the brains of neanderthals, which have enlarged craniums. If possible, Church hopes to create a cohort for his neanderthal creation, to give the two a sense of identity.
Others in the medical community, however, doubt Church's neanderthal could ever be born into this world, both because of ethical dilemmas and scientific impossibilities.
"I don't think it will ever happen," Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at the New York University Center for Bioethics, told ABC News. "It lurches too close to exploitation. It rubs up too closely as starting to turn into bringing somebody into existence just as an object of other people's interest."
Caplan likened Church's experiment to Frankenstein, where the character Victor Frankenstein created his monster to prove that he could do it. That fictional monster, however, struggled with his dignity and identity in a modern world.
Ron Crystal, a geneticist at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, warned that cloning a neanderthal could create myriad safety issues. He told ABC News that there's no reference to base neanderthal sequencing off of. A lot of it would have to be guesswork, and slipping on just one letter in the DNA could be fatal later on for the species. One-letter deformities include sickle cell anemia, Huntington's disease and cystic fibrosis.
"It's a problem for whether you're trying to put together a dinosaur or trying to put together a neanderthal," Crystal said. "There's nothing to compare to. There's no gold standard."
Even if neanderthal sequencing is eventually mastered, there's a strong chance groups of stillborn or disabled babies would proceed a successful offspring. A neanderthal child could also be acutely disease-prone.
Church's desire to clone a neanderthal isn’t his first foray into controversial experimentation. He firmly believes viruses can be fought by changing the genetic code and urges humans to drop their guard when it comes to scientific research. Biology, he says, is a gift.
"It's as if a master engineer parked a spacecraft in our back yard with not so many manuals, but lots of goodies in it that are kind of self-explanatory," he told Der Spiegel.
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