January 21, 2013
Researcher Seeking “Adventurous” Woman To Carry Cloned Neanderthal Baby
redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online
Surrogacy, the act of a woman carrying a child for another person or couple, is a fairly standard and accepted practice in this day and age — unless, of course, you´re being recruited to give birth to the first Neanderthal baby in more than 30,000 years. Then it gets a little unorthodox.
Yet, according to a series of reports published over the weekend, that´s exactly what Harvard Medical School geneticist George Church is attempting to facilitate.
In an interview with Der Spiegel, the 58-year-old genomics and synthetic biology pioneer said he is close to being able to clone a Neanderthal baby, but that he would need an "adventurous female human" to carry the currently extinct, Pleistocene-era humanoid fetus through gestation.
“Reviving an extinct human ancestor may seem like a ludicrous premise, but it's not as farfetched as it may seem,” explains Amar Toor of The Verge. “Church says he's already extracted enough fossil DNA to reconstruct the DNA of a Neanderthal child, and he's been very outspoken about the feasibility of bringing one to term.”
While Toor points out that it is uncertain whether or not Church will actually be ready to move forward with his prehistoric cloning project in the near future — even with a willing surrogate mother — he has said in the past such a feat could offer new insights into the process of evolution, while also potentially advancing research into genetic engineering in the process.
Also, as Max Read of Gawker.com points out, something like this is not without precedent. Read says four years ago, Spanish scientists managed to clone an extinct ibex subspecies. The cloned subject died minutes after it was born, but the cloning process itself was successful.
So how would Church go about attempting to clone a Neanderthal? According to Forbes Staff Writer Alex Knapp, he told the German magazine the first step — sequencing the Neanderthal´s genome — had already been accomplished. Next, scientists would have to divide up the genome into thousands of fragments, synthesize them, and then introduce them 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,” the Harvard geneticist is quoted as saying. “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.”
Knapp, however, does not seem to share Church´s optimism regarding Neanderthal cloning.
“Setting aside the ethical issues behind creating the lone survivor of an extinct human species, doomed to be a freak under the microscope of celebrity his or her entire life, I have to question Dr. Church´s contention that it would really be that easy to clone a Neanderthal,” he said. “There are a host of unanswered questions and many as yet undiscovered technologies that would need to be developed before this could be approached as a serious issue.
“One particular challenge of cloning a Neanderthal is that the oldest DNA successfully used to create a clone is DNA that had been frozen for 16 years. Neanderthal DNA, is thousands of years old, and its sequence had to be compiled from several different individual fossils. That poses one unique challenge because to date, mammalian clones have only been created from the DNA of specific individuals,” Knapp added.
There are several obstacles that would need to be overcome for the process to be successful, he explains. One is the limited half-life of DNA, as well as the ease with which is can be damaged, contaminated, or destroyed. Another is the fact the genetic material of mitochondria, the organelles within cells that provide our bodies with energy, would also need to be cloned. A third is the potential differences in internal bacteria, which are different in humans and Neanderthals but are essential for vitamin production, digestion, and several other purposes.
“Is it possible to clone a Neanderthal? The technical challenges for doing so are enormous, and involves a number of problems that have yet to be solved. Or even have solutions on the horizon,” Knapp said. “Even solving those problems doesn´t eliminate some of the challenges — for example, whether a Neanderthal can survive in the modern day environment. Not to mention that the logistics involved would be enormous.
“The reality is that success would require dozens of women — many of whom would almost certainly go through the trauma of miscarriage and stillbirths that appear to be inevitable when it comes to cloning. The ethical implications of just this simple aspect of the process are pretty damning. And even the bare fact of cloning doesn´t guarantee that we can ensure that a cloned Neanderthal would be able to flourish in what is now a pretty alien environment,” he added. “Given both the technical and economic challenges to cloning a Neanderthal, it´s highly unlikely that you´ll see a Neanderthal clone in your lifetime, if ever.”
Church has succeeded at unusual, genetically-related projects in the past, however. Last August, he led a team that reportedly wrote an entire novel in DNA, a feat which could drastically change the way in which we save data due to the massive amount of information that can be stored on each gram of genetic code.