Harvard University genetics Professor George Church, 58, a pioneer in synthetic biology, whose ground-breaking research in the 1980s laid the groundwork for genome sequencing, said, in a recent interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel
, that scientists may soon clone a Neanderthal baby using technology that is rapidly developing.
Church said that using DNA from Neanderthal bones, it may be possible to resurrect the long-extinct relatives of the human species.
In the interview with Der Spiegel
, Church said:
"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."
Church says that while the technology to accomplish the feat is available, the two major obstacles in the way of scientists willing to carry out the project are that cloning is illegal in many countries and the difficulty of finding an "extremely adventurous female human" who is willing to serve as surrogate to a "human" species believed to have gone extinct at least 33,000 years ago.
According to Church, cloning a Neanderthal will not be possible until "human cloning is acceptable to society." He said: “We can clone all kinds of mammals, so it’s very likely that we could clone a human. Why shouldn't we be able to do so?”
The geneticist defended the idea of bringing an extinct "human" species back to life just for the sake of scientific curiosity with the suggestion that the goal is to increase diversity. He argued that it is possible that Neanderthals think differently than humans. He said that Neanderthals may also introduce beneficial genetic diversity to the human gene pool.
He comments about the benefits of genetic diversity that modern human populations may reap from cloning a Neanderthal: "It could even be that you want just a few mutations from the Neanderthal genome. Suppose you were to realize: Wow, these five mutations might change the neuronal pathways, the skull size, a few key things. They could give us what we want in terms of neutral diversity."
The geneticist speculates that a Neanderthal society could contribute new ways of thinking that could lead to new ideas. He said: "Neanderthals might think differently than we do. They could even be more intelligent than us. When the time comes to deal with an epidemic or getting off the planet, it’s conceivable that their way of thinking could be beneficial."
Seeking to increase diversity comes with serious moral-ethical issues for the guinea pigs in the experiment, especially in a world in which millions of humans still hold grudges against their fellows for having different skin color, accent, language, religion and culture.
Church points out in this respect that it may not be desirable to clone a single Neanderthal individual who would live alone in a laboratory environment. He said scientists may have to "create a cohort" to give the clones a social identity and culture of their own.
But for now the idea of cloning may only be discussed with speculations about its benefits. The US is among several countries that have anti-cloning laws in place.The United Nations Declaration on Human Cloning calls on member states to “prohibit all forms of cloning inasmuch as they are incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life."
There are concerns that cloned Neanderthals may lack immunity to modern varieties of diseases. Cloned individuals may also be deformed and lack the physical vigor necessary to thrive in the modern world.
A major concern, however, is how they would fit into or relate to modern society. The Daily Mail
reports that bioethicist Bernard Rollin of Colorado State University, said: "I don’t think it’s fair to put people... into a circumstance where they are going to be mocked and possibly feared."
Philippa Taylor of the Christian Medical Fellowship, said: ‘It is hard to know where to begin with the ethical and safety concerns.’
Cloning Neanderthals is not the only extreme application of genetic engineering technology that Church has proposed. He has said it may be possible to re-engineer human genes to make them resistant to viruses.