From Archaeology: Should We Clone Neanderthals?
Working with ancient DNA can be much more problematic than sequencing genetic material from living species. Within hours of death, cells begin to break down in a process called apoptosis. The dying cells release enzymes that chop up DNA into tiny pieces. In a human cell, this means that the entire three-billion-base-pair genome is reduced to fragments a few hundred base-pairs long or shorter. The DNA also goes through chemical changes that alter the nucleotides as it ages–C changes into T, and G turns into A–which can cause the gene sequence to be interpreted incorrectly. In the case of the Neanderthal sample, somewhere between 90 and 99 percent of the DNA came from bacteria and other contaminants that had found their way into the bone as it sat in the ground and in storage. The contaminant DNA has to be identified and eliminated. Given the similarity between Neanderthal and modern human DNA, this can be especially difficult when the contamination comes from the people who excavated or analyzed the bone.
One way to get around the problems of working with an artificial genome would be to alter the DNA inside a living cell. This kind of genetic engineering can already be done, but very few changes can be made at one time. To clone a Neanderthal, thousands or possibly millions of changes would have to be made to a human cell’s DNA. George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, is part of a research team that is developing a technique to make hundreds of alterations to a genome at the same time. The technique, multiplex automated genome engineering (MAGE), uses short strands of DNA called oligonucleotides to insert pieces of artificial genetic material into a cell’s genome at specifically targeted sites. MAGE has been used successfully to make 24 alterations to the genomes of bacteria, mice, and, more recently, human cells. Church estimates that it would take about 10 million changes to make a modern human genome match the Neanderthal genome. Accomplishing this would be a matter of drastically scaling up the technique.
This is funny:
“I’m convinced that if one were to raise a Neanderthal in a modern human family he would function just like everybody else,” says Trenton Holliday, a paleoanthropologist at Tulane University. “I have no reason to doubt he could speak and do all the things that modern humans do.”
“I think there would be no question that if you cloned a Neanderthal, that individual would be recognized as having human rights under the Constitution and international treaties,” says Lori Andrews, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law. The law does not define what a human being is, but legal scholars are debating questions of human rights in cases involving genetic engineering. “This is a species-altering event,” says Andrews, “it changes the way we are creating a new generation.” How much does a human genome need to be changed before the individual created from it is no longer considered human?
Legal precedent in the United States seems to be on the side of Neanderthal human rights. In 1997, Stuart Newman, a biology professor at New York Medical School attempted to patent the genome of a chimpanzee-human hybrid as a means of preventing anyone from creating such a creature. The patent office, however, turned down his application on the basis that it would violate the Constitution’s 13th amendment prohibition against slavery. Andrews believes the patent office’s ruling shows the law recognizes that an individual with a half-chimpanzee and half-human genome would deserve human rights. A Neanderthal would have a genome that is even more recognizably human than Newman’s hybrid. “If we are going to give the Neanderthals humans rights…what’s going to happen to that individual?” Andrews says. “Obviously, it won’t have traditional freedoms. It’s going to be studied and it’s going to be experimented on. And yet, if it is accorded legal protections, it will have the right to not be the subject of research, so the very reasons for which you would create it would be an abridgment of rights.”
Human rights laws vary widely around the world. “There is not a universal ban on cloning,” says Anderson. “Even in the United States there are some states that ban it, others that don’t.” On August 8, 2005, the United Nations voted to ban human cloning. It sent a clear message that most governments believe that human cloning is unethical. The ban, however, is non-binding.
The legal issues surrounding a cloned Neanderthal would not stop with its rights. Under current laws, genomes can be patented, meaning that someone or some company could potentially own the genetic code of a long-dead person.
To clear up any misunderstanding: I’m “against” all forms of genetic tampering, including cloning.
That said I hope some got a chuckle regarding the chimpanzee-human hybrid having rights under the 13th. Someone forward that legal ruling to Jessie Jackson.