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Technology News - Annalee Newitz

Technology News

Human-Animal Hybrid Clones

By Annalee Newitz

I JUST LOVE saying that scientists are creating "human-animal hybrid clones" because that single phrase pulls together about 15 nightmares from science fiction and religion all at the same time. Though if you think about it, one fear really should cancel the other out. I mean, if you're worried about human cloning, then the fact that these are clones created by sticking human DNA inside cow eggs should be comforting. I mean, it's not really a human anymore at that point, right?

But the real reason why I'm gloating over this piece of completely ordinary biological weirdness is that last week the British Parliament began the process of legalizing human-animal hybrid embryo cloning. While not explicitly illegal in the United States, the process has been so criticized (including by former President Clinton) that most researchers have stayed away from it. Now, however, this law could make it easy for Brits to advance their medicine far faster than people in the supposedly high-tech and super-advanced United States.

You see, these scary hybrids could become stem cell gold mines. One of the barriers to getting stem cells for research is that they only come from human embryos, and human embryos come from human women. Some of us may be cool with donating our eggs to science, but a lot of us aren't—and that means scientists don't have a lot of material to work with if they want to do stem cell research that could do things like reverse organ failure and cure Alzheimer's.

And that's where these human-animal hybrids come in. We can already inject DNA into the nucleus of a cow egg and zap it with electricity, thus reprogramming that egg to be human. And we can even get that egg to start dividing as if it were an embryo, creating a bunch of human stem cells. Beyond that, we just aren't sure.

Will these embryos create viable stem cells to treat all those nasty human diseases? Or will they just be duds that act too much like cow cells to be usable by humans? If there's even a small chance that the former will come to pass, and we'll have solved the human stem cell shortage problem, it's worth investigating.

That is why scientists in the U.K. are doing it, and why their government is debating exactly how the process should be regulated. You wouldn't necessarily know that from the way it's been covered in the media, where even the normally staid International Herald Tribune began an article about the potential U.K. law with this sentence: "The British Parliament has voted to allow the creation of human-animal embryos, which some scientists say are vital to find cures for diseases but which critics argue pervert the course of nature." Nice move with the whole throwing in the word "pervert" there.

When media write about how scientists might "pervert the course of nature," and anti-science group Human Genetics Alert is bombarding me and pretty much every other science journalist on the planet with crazed, uniformed screeds about how this law will lead to "designer babies," you start to feel like a huge portion of the population doesn't know the difference between science and science fiction.

Indeed, one of the most anticipated sci-fi horror movies for next year is Splice, about a pair of rock-star geneticists who create a human-animal hybrid. Of course the hybrid happens to be a deadly, exotic-looking woman with wings and a tail and a hot body. Early images released from the production show her naked, with her animal parts looking sexy and dangerous.

The completely impossible "designer baby" in Splice is what most people think will happen when scientists create their human-animal hybrid clones. But creating something like the sexy Splice lady is not only beyond the reach of current science but will also be illegal under the proposed U.K. law. The hybrid clones will only be permitted to develop for about two weeks, which is all the time required to create stem cells. After that, they must be destroyed. So the U.K. law actually makes the nightmare scenario impossible, not possible. And that's why I'm psyched about getting my human-animal hybrid clones.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who can't wait to see the world populated with human-elephant-dolphin hybrids.

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