Sunday, January 27, 2013

Plot to clone ‘Neanderthal’ man

By CHEGE MBITIRU

The headline in Britain’s Daily Mail a week today depicted not only a scientific breakthrough but also human audacity to use it.

“Wanted: Adventurous woman to give birth to a Neanderthal man,” it said. More clarification followed: Harvard professor seeks mother for cloned cave baby.

In the United States, Fox News went to town with the story. Within no time, the story went viral.

The Fox News story referred to an interview George M. Church, a genetics professor at Harvard Medical School, gave to Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine. It reported him saying, “I can create a Neanderthal baby, if I can find a willing woman.”

The Neanderthals are the nearest and last to extinct relatives of modern humans. They are believed to have lived in Europe, in prehistoric time span, no earlier than about 33,000 years ago. No fossils more recent than 30,000 years have been found.

The Neanderthals got the name from a rich fossil find in 1856 by workers at a limestone mine in the Neander Valley near Dusseldorf, Germany.

A great deal of Neanderthals DNA sequence is now known. So is that of a sister group, Denisovans. Specimens were discovered in a southern Siberia cave in 2008. The Denisovans are believed to have existed anywhere from 30,000 to 80,000 years ago after a divergence from the Neanderthals.

Anywhere in the periods the Neanderthals and Denisovans existed, the ancestors of modern humans did.

An article in Live Science last August reported researchers at the Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany, found evidence it’s more likely the ancestors of modern humans interbred with the Neanderthals than with the Denisovans.

As to how the Neanderthals and Denisovans came into being, “It may well be that a single population expanding out of Africa gave rise to both the Denisovans and the Neanderthals,” Svante Paabo, of the Leipzig institute is reported saying.

Last November, an article published in an American journal PLoS One said “the only modern humans whose ancestors did not interbreed with Neanderthals are apparently sub-Saharan Africans.” That’s another story, though.

Anyway, disputes of DNA variants across the Neanderthals, Denisovans and modern humans remain non-existent, so far.

In November, Bloomberg reported Prof Church saying he’s 3.8 per cent Neanderthal. “One of my ancestors mated with a Neanderthal, and I am not embarrassed by that.” Bloomberg said Prof Church had his genome sequenced.

Responding to the report of seeking an “adventurous woman,” Prof Church told the Boston Herald newspaper, it resulted from poor translation of the Der Spiegel story. “I am saying if it is technically possible someday, we need to start talking about it today.”

In the Bloomberg story, Church cited in vitro fertilization, once controversial, now routine, as an example. “It’s important to have discussions about these complex issues early and in a rational manner before the technology gets ahead of the talk.”

And technology is moving fast. Attempts to stop it would undoubtedly lead to the Biblical Armageddon. Assured mutual destruction, by many means, is real.

Postscript: Denisovans were discovered through sequencing of the DNA, not sorting of archaeological rubble. It’s possible, Paabo told Live Science, that research may find other groups of extinct humans’ relatives. Then what?

(cmbitiru@hotmail.com)