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December 17, 2002



I see from the NY Times of December 17 that one of my pet theories is being empirically validated:

Dr. [Severino] Antinori, [an Italian fertility doctor] who became famous in 1994 for helping a 62-year-old woman become pregnant by implanting a donor’s fertilized egg in her uterus, says he has a clone pregnancy under way in an undisclosed country. The clone, he says, is a boy, due in early January.

Panayiotis Michael Zavos in Kentucky, Dr. Antinori’s onetime partner and now his bitter enemy, says he does not believe Dr. Antinori, and anyway he is working on something even better. Dr. Zavos, an embryologist, says he has collected cells from seven people who want to be cloned, and in the first two weeks of January he will insert the cells’ nuclei into donated human eggs. He promises that, unlike his rival, he will offer DNA evidence that each of the babies born of this adventure is an exact genetic replica of its parent.

And to add a little spice, there are the Raelians, members of a religious cult who believe the first humans were cloned by space aliens 25,000 years ago and who have taken on human cloning as a sacred mission. Acoording to their chief scientist, Brigitte Boisselier, the Raelians now have five clone pregnancies under way, the first of which is to be delivered by the end of this month.

My pet theory? That no amount of banning or regulation is going to stop the more science-fiction-y outcomes of biotechnology and reproductive science from coming to pass. Before this is all over, you’ll see not only designer babies--genetically engineered athletes, scholars and fashion models--but cloning with the goal of harvesting the clone for, er, spare parts. If you can think such a possibility up, I suspect that somewhere, in the not-too-distant future it will happen.

Dr. Antinori--What Kind of Future Does He See, Exactly?

I am not an advocate of any of this stuff—to say I prefer making children the old-fashioned way is an understatement. But if people think buying a few score genes from Cindy Crawford will make their daughter more popular in high school, or buying some from Barry Bonds will make their son more athletic, they may well do it. (Think of it as throwing a few of your genes overboard to make the rest more reproductively successful.) And as for the more gruesome outcomes, human beings have long demonstrated that if they can get the upside of things without personally suffering from the downside they will rationalize their behavior one way or another.

Fasten your safety belts, kids--we're in for a very weird ride.



posted by Friedrich at December 17, 2002


I think the end results, though, will not be the dystopias we see in science fiction where superbeings / supersoldiers end up taking over or becoming dominant in any way. Even though we say we've mapped the genome, all that really means is we've listed all the nucleotide pairs (adenine, guanine, thymine, or cytosine) for one human being. What was discovered is that the mechanism is more complex than decoding a simple sequence. It appears that there's another layer (or many other layers) of information represented by a particular sequence, which means that one sequence might be responsible for producing many proteins, or genetic affects, rather than just one. Kinda like in the movie "Contact" where they discover the big noise from space contains a film of Hitler, which has interlaced frames, which contain a map, which is three-dimensional, which ends up being the plans for building a ship.

Due to the complexities, and our simple, incomplete understanding of them, the efforts to produce clones and other genetic wizardry are very crude and will have uneven and wildly unpredictable results.

Dolly, the cloned sheep, proved to have a very limited lifespan - not the normal one for sheep - and she was very fragile. And she was one of the few successful result animals out of many attempted.

So, whatever we do manage to clone, or genetically engineer, will most likely be not what we expect. The results will probably be very flawed, and hopefully not dangerous (assuming, very optimistically, that the genetic system has a means of "correcting" clumsy, crude manipulations without wiping out large populations).

Oh, and nanotechnology is probably a blind alley, because if such a thing could exist, it already would. The only thing that is naturally nanotechnology-like is the virus, which we don't understand enough to even really control, either. And, as far as I know, the nanotechnology people aren't even looking at viruses.

In short, our saving grace is that we are so far away from actually understanding the true mechanisms, we probably aren't even dangerous, yet.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on December 18, 2002 11:02 AM

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