Send in the clones

1 minute read

I didn’t comment on the Neandertal cloning kerfuffle this week. Now that it’s sort of died down, I’ll provide a link to a Knight Science Journalism Tracker story by Faye Flam that gives some context and timeline: “Weird Science: The Attack of the Neanderthal Clone Baby Stories”.

What reader could resist clicking on a headline about a mad scientist trying to find women to carry Neanderthal clones? It sounds like something from the old supermarket tabloid the Weekly World News, but this latest whopper is loosely based on a real statement by a real scientist.
In his book, Regenesis, written with Ed Regis, Harvard researcher George Church really did say that it might be possible to clone Neanderthal babies using the Neanderthal genome sequence reconstructed with synthetic biology. And the kicker: A cloned embryo of our extinct cousin could be gestated by an adventurous woman. (On the plus side, the first volunteer would be shoe-in to get her own reality show.)

I heard from a few readers this week who wanted to know (a) if Church is really close to cloning a Neandertal, and (b) where they could sign up.

The answer is that this isn’t going to be technically possible for quite some time. This is not the same problem as cloning a living person. A living cell can provide functional genetic material that can be used to generate a cloned cell. Neandertal skeletal remains have DNA only in very short, nonfunctional bits. Taking genetic information and making it into a working chromosome is a very substantial technical challenge, and ensuring that the genetic information is free of errors and capable of yielding a viable embryo will be massively difficult. Church is an optimist about the rate of progress on these problems, and I have correspondents who think these advances may happen in less than ten years. Personally I think it will be more than thirty.

By that time, human cloning will probably be routine.

Some people are not that interested in understanding the technology, they just want to talk about ethics. That’s why so many press outlets picked up the story, and why Church tried to walk back his comments after they received such wide press. I have some thoughts about the ethical aspects of cloning as applied to Neandertals, but they’ll take some more time and space to describe.