- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 13, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Shades of Jurassic Park and Frankenstein! A scientific team reported in a recent issue of Nature magazine that it may be possible to reconstruct the genome of extinct species, work out the DNA differences with the genome of its nearest living relative, and ultimately have the latter give birth to the former. Using hair, feathers, and other body items from species that went extinct within the past 60,000 years (the effective DNA age limit), scientists could use, say, an elephant mother to bring to life a mammoth, which roamed as recently as 10,000 years ago.

Here’s the problem. The same is technically possible with Neanderthals, whose full genome is expected to be recovered soon. These semi-folks lived 230,000 to 28,000 years ago, some of them well within the DNA lifetime. Kidding aside about producing Neanderthals from alleged current-day knuckle-scrapers (dumb blonde, lawyer, and Congress jokes come to mind), there is obviously a serious ethical concern.

One Harvard Medical School genome technologist, Dr. George Church, said in a New York Times article that he thinks there is an alternative approach to bring Neanderthals back that would “alarm a minimal number of people,” namely modifying not a human genome but that of a chimpanzee, which is 98 percent similar to that of people. The chimpanzee’s genome would be modified to close to that of a Neanderthal, and the embryo brought to term in a chimp. “The big issue would be whether enough people felt that a chimp-Neanderthal hybrid would be acceptable, and that would be broadly discussed before anyone started to work on it,” Dr. Church said. Sure. If it becomes possible, somewhere in the world some scientist will do it, with a human or chimp surrogate, because he or she can do it, not because of the slightest concern with ethics.

Are there no limits to what will be done in the name of scientific advancement? We’ll see, but aren’t hopeful there will be any boundaries.

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