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'Cloned cave baby' stories missed the mark, scientist says

January 23, 2013|By Eryn Brown
  • Harvard Medical School genetics professor George Church in 2008. He said this week that, Internet rumors to the contrary, he is not recruiting women to give birth to cloned Neanderthal babies.
Harvard Medical School genetics professor George Church in 2008. He said… (Lisa Poole / Associated…)

Let's be clear: That Harvard scientist you heard about is NOT seeking an "adventurous woman" to give birth to a "cloned cave baby."

But that was the juicy story making its way around Web on Tuesday.

The blowup began when the German magazine Der Spiegel published an interview with Harvard synthetic biologist George Church, who is well-known for his genome sequencing effort, the Personal Genome Project, and for all sorts of other unusual and creative projects such as encoding his new book, "Regenesis," in actual DNA.

In his interview with Der Spiegel, Church discussed a number of ways "DNA will become the building block of the future," as the magazine put it. The interview touched on back-engineering dinosaurs, by first identifying the mutations that separated ostriches, one of the closest living relatives of the dinosaurs, from their long-extinct forebears. It discussed the possibility of using DNA to build gadgets in the future -- "cars, computers or coffee machines," as Der Spiegel put it. Church also talked about the possibility of synthesizing genes to promote virus resistance or longevity.

As for the Neanderthal baby? It did come up -- as a hypothetical. Church said that the speed at which technology was evolving might make such a project possible in the relatively near future, depending on "a lot of things." He also observed that before any woman served as a surrogate for a cloned Neanderthal fetus, society would first have to accept human cloning.

Qualifying statements aside, the interview included some pretty interesting thoughts about how cloned Neanderthals might make today's world a better place.

"Neanderthals might think differently than we do. We know that they had a larger cranial size. They could even be more intelligent than us. When the time comes to deal with an epidemic or getting off the planet or whatever, it's conceivable that their way of thinking could be beneficial," Church said, according to Der Speigel. He also suggested that picking out beneficial genes from Neanderthal DNA and placing those into a cloned individual could improve human stock at some date in the future -- though, he joked, "I doubt that we were going to particularly care about their facial morphology."

In an interview with the Boston Herald on Tuesday, Church blamed the crazy rumors on some journalists' misreading of the interview, saying he thought the whole incident said more about Web rumors than it did about cloning or his research. 

"The real story here is how these stories have percolated and changed in different ways," he said.

For readers interested in more: Der Spiegel published a response to Church's response on Wednesday.

UCLA synthetic biologist Christina Agapakis blogged about the dust-up with a feminist twist, pondering the role of women in synthetic genomics. 

And Taiwanese Web outfit Next Media Animation put together this video, posted to YouTube:

 eryn.brown@latimes.com

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