90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
PLEDGE NOW
Is Creating New Life — Maybe Even A Neanderthal — Possible?

Creating new life and bringing back old. Maybe even Neanderthal man.

Children watch a giant mammoth and a calf model at the Neanderthal Museum in Mettmann, Germany. (AP)

Children watch a giant mammoth and a calf model at the Neanderthal Museum in Mettmann, Germany. (AP)

Synthetic biology can sound kind of bland.  Like polyester pants.  Nylon stockings.  Synthetic – no big deal.

But think about it.  Synthetic biology.  Biology fully, deeply, maybe radically remade by man.  It’s well underway.

Re-engineering biology to make food, fuel, medicine.  Seeds that grow into houses.  Stronger, smarter humans.  Maybe even bring back the dead.  The extinct

My guest today has written about finding an “extremely adventurous” woman to give birth to a Neanderthal.  And he’s not kidding.

This hour, On Point:  synthetic biology creating new and very old life.

-Tom Ashbrook

Guests

George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, and professor of health sciences and technology at Harvard and MIT. Co-author of “Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves.” (@geochurch)

Arthur Caplan, head of the division of bioethics at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City. (@arthurcaplan)

Jay Keasling, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at UC Berkeley. Director of the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center. (@jaykeasling)

From Tom’s Reading List

The Boston Herald “The headline flying across the Internet yesterday seemed too outlandish to be true: ‘Wanted: “Adventurous woman” to give birth to Neanderthal man — Harvard professor seeks mother for cloned cave baby,’ Britain’s Daily Mail exulted. And Harvard University geneticist George M. Church, the scientist at the center of the viral vortex, says it was: Way too outlandish, and entirely untrue.”

ABC News “Caplan said there’s also insufficient knowledge about whether Neanderthals would be too aggressive to flourish in society or whether they would die of an extreme unforeseen allergy. He compared the latter to the way Europeans accidentally killed the Native Americans by giving them small pox.”

Science News “Place an order with Ginkgo BioWorks and its researchers will make an organism to do whatever you want. Need to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere? They can engineer the insides of a bacterium to do just that. Want clean, biologically based fuels to replace petroleum taken from the ground? Company scientists will design a microbe to poop those out.”

Excerpt from “Regenesis”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=rD5uNAMbDaQ#!

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Wm_James_from_Missouri

    An attempt to resurrect a species is, in my opinion an affirmation of all, that so many of us hold dear. It is a minor victory in, the ongoing war, over death. If you have ever lost a loved one, then I am certain that at some point, you wished you, somehow, had the power to reverse, that seemingly eternal loss. For I believe, that as the “faith of old “gave way to “reason“, “reason” will someday give-way to a “greater reason“; the end of entropy’s “reason”; death eternal. It is the process that sanctifies and validates our purpose, and guarantees resurrection.

    Reference Notes on related topics:

    I hope these will inspire you and propel you to consider or reconsider Christianity, from a different perspective. I know that many of you are atheist or agnostic and consider any such view to be worthless, contradictory and even regressive. I won‘t droll on about it, as this is not the proper time or place, however, I do wish you would consider reading, for example, the Infancy Gospels, and try and look for subtle statements that might allow you to see these concepts in a different light. ( (Excuse the play on words ):

    Also secular viewpoints :

    Resurrect last giant tortoise by crossing breeding living species:

    http://news.yahoo.com/scientists-galapagos-tortoise-revived-210419762.html
    —–
    A device to store information ( could be used to store genetic information) for as much as 100 million years:
    See Hitachi :

    http://www.techspot.com/news/50313-hitachi-unveils-quartz-based-storage-data-may-last-100-million-years.html
    —–
    Astronomer and scientist ,Seth Llyod, a quick look. This man has argued that the Universe is a “type” of computer (quantum). Of course, if he is correct, then this “computer” is governed by rules and algorithms, and by Alan Turing’s proof about the, “universality of ALL computers“, and is, therefore, replicable !

    http://www.ask.com/wiki/Seth_Lloyd?o=3986&qsrc=999
    —–
    A critique of Tipler’s work, “ The Physics of Immortality, God, Cosmology, and the Resurrection of the Dead” :

    http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/graham_oppy/tipler.html
    —–
    Wiki, general background info on Frank Tipler:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_J._Tipler

    • JobExperience

      All inhabitants of terra firma (microbe, plant, animal-human) are part of one being: Mother Earth, with one physic, chemistry, biology and destiny. Human devices did not evolve according to these constraints and are by definition toxic to IT. Hitachi is not my Creator.

      Human scientific and industrial capacity is miniscule beside Nature. And we do not know Nature that well.

    • Jasoturner

      I would respectfully make the following comment for your consideration.  Religions often (though not always) postulate that man is a sort of inferior version of god, and that the moral dictates of religion are devised by a wise and omnipotent being who we are somewhat like.

      But consider:

      I believe the current best estimate of the number of neurons in the human brain is about 85 billion.

      I believe the current best estimate of the number of neurons in the brain of an ape is about 15 billion.

      It is easy to imagine an extraterrestrial life form that is much older, and that has 200 billion neural connections.

      Now, just as we would not view the actions and motives of the great apes to be tending towards transcendence, I suspect our readily imagined extraterrestrials would find our belief in our proximity to transcendence to be unfounded and wrong. 

      We might well be intellectually to such creatures as apes or cats or dogs are to us. 

      If we have the imagination to see and admit this, it promotes reaching for the stars rather than reaching for ancient texts to achieve wisdom and maybe enlightenment.  To discover artifacts of such creatures, and to puzzle about things we might be incapable of comprehending but understand to be of rational design.

      • Wm_James_from_Missouri

        If willing, please respond at past shows.
        JasoturnerOn self driving cars, Sept. 27, 2012, at :http://onpoint.wbur.org/2012/0

        • Jasoturner

          I fear the link does not work, but if you have a particular inquiry, please fire away.

          • Wm_James_from_Missouri

            Jasoturner, I clipped one of my paragraphs from the post I mentioned. You have made this argument before, about, more neural connections being equivalent to greater intelligence. Which does seem very reasonable to me and is, in fact, supported by evolutionary evidence, but there may be more to the story ! The man below, after suffering ‘brain damage’, (a lessening of the number of neurons) is now a math genius. It seems that woop-*ss is the new smart drug .

             
            “_ When it comes to the number of neural networks; a person might be able to argue that “more” is not always better. I refer you to a story about a man named ,Jason Padgett , who was mugged by robbers. After recovering from a concussion, he found himself able to understand sophisticated mathematics. There are other notable cases such as his, quite fascinating!“

             
            http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/30/college-dropout-jason-pad_n_1464835.html

          • Jasoturner

            Very interesting indeed.  I guess I have a couple of views on this.  First, I still think more is not only better, it is necessary.  Otherwise, history should have gifted us with numerous animal savants over time.  And so I believe, but obviously cannot prove, that significantly more neurons should lead to significantly more sophisticated thinking, and that a certain critical mass is also needed just to get things started.

            You are pointing out something a bit different, though, and something I have thought a bit about.  Is it possible that our brains have the capability of functioning at levels far beyond what we perceive to be possible?  Anecdotally the answer is yes, and I must confess that I occasionally feel like my brain is imprisoned, and that much deeper cognition should be possible, even if I cannot achieve it or even understand why I even feel this way when deep into a problem.

            Wouldn’t it be curious and exciting if we already have the mental machinery to make a quantum leap forward in cognitive abilities without additional neural connections, and just haven’t learned how to exercise it?

            Although the analogy is not great, this reminds me of reading about when Leo Szilard (sp?) had a revelation that nuclear fission was possible while about to cross a street.  The nature of uranium changed instantly and devastatingly thanks to one insight.  Discovering an analogous mental fission would be the ultimate game changer.

            Many thanks for raising this fascinating topic.  Now you’ve really gotten me wondering…

          • Wm_James_from_Missouri

            Jasoturner,
            I am in simpatico with your thoughts. On the subject of doing more with the brains we already have; we have all had those, aha, moments. For me they come after (usually) much struggle but when moving from thought to thought, often as a tangent to a current thought.
            This may sound ridiculous but it is true. I the year 2000, I wondered how I might write a program to generate subsets of items ( using the Visual Basic Lang. that I write in ). Some 1200 pages of code later, in the year 2007, I finally “saw the light”. Like these things usually go, as soon as I saw the finished work, I said, “ this was kind of obvious” (ha, ha), but the idea was helped along by three dreams I had about the problem. Each dream solution was wrong but got me closer to the correct answer. I had to let go and fall into the answer ! It is so true, (isn’t it), that we often load our minds with our daily junk and loose our way. By the way, not to worry, my method may not be the best way to generate subsets but is general enough and useful enough to solve VERY many “other” problems that I never would have found a method to solve, otherwise. I am very, very happy !

            PS. I am ( I think) reasonably close to solving the “Goldbach conjecture”, at least my inner voice is telling me so. But once again, I am loaded down with everyday problems and therefore, am unable to lift this brain fog. I can relate to your feelings about imprisoned brains !

          • Jasoturner

            An aphorism you might enjoy:

            Throughout life we are exposed to patterns (of behavior, of nature)
            which we have no formal expression for. So parts of life seem familiar
            but not well know. Like Newton, we must invent the descriptive language
            and refine it as it’s application requires.

            Interesting that you mention the Goldbach conjecture.  I think many people have an intuition that there is some conceptual key that would allow us to “understand” prime numbers, but the darn key is just maddeningly elusive.

  • Duras

    Do scientist think that they can clone my healthy cells, brain et alii in order to live forever within a generation or two?  What I am trying to say is–I’m 29 and do you think I’ll be able to cheat death?

    • Jasoturner

      Nobody gets out of here alive…

      • Duras

        Jim Morrison

  • 1Brett1

    Wouldn’t cloning an entire person or animal be a kind of simulacrum? Wouldn’t there be some flaw that separates that from the original? Wouldn’t that be also true of an organ or any form of organism? Wouldn’t we have a genetically inferior, ersatz organism? Would that have more of a chance to mutate or behave in ways that might not be as predicted? Then what do we do when such has to be destroyed for the greater good? 

  • ezracolbert

    Rather then focus on speculative,  headline grabbing ideas like new neanderthals,  which will probably not occur for many years if ever, how about focusing on things that are starting to happen today – the ability to genetically select your children and implant dna
    I’m sure that if you go to China with hard currency, you can do all sorts of things to day, that are illegal in the us – like you and your spouse can ask that your child be 6 foot tall and blue eyed.

    • JobExperience

      In a nutshell: North Korea is Da Bomb!

      ezra: Remember that immunizations may cause autism?

      The most likely biological threat is engineered viruses and prions. I’m sure THEY provide protective measures for THEM. Already wheat farming in the Middle East has been decimated with engineered rust.

    • Jasoturner

      Sounds like you just watched Blade Runner…

  • ezracolbert

    sorry, forgot to add – dictators all over the world have noticed that N Korea, with the bomb, is not getting attacked.
    I was a dictator, I would be working on making soldiers who are genetically resistant to radiation: I think this can be done today; we know, eg from D Radiodurans, a resistant bug, what genes confer resistance to radiation
    I would be making people immune to anthrax and smallpox – again, we can do this TODAY

    • JobExperience

      Yes, Iran is on the bubble right now, but the game continues. Even robots are not immune to nuclear radiation. Japan found that out pretty quick at Fukishima #4. Hey, aren’t they the leaders in automation? So those elevated stored rods are poised to drop and melt at the next tembler. The USA is already getting a highly detectable dose from Fuk…  So no bombs are needed to Nuke us all. (see Fairewinds) Life expectancy is bound to be shortened globally. “No gene left undamaged” is the new mantra.

  • JobExperience

    “You say you’ve heard it before, as it slowly rambles on and on.
    No need in bringin’ back the never really gone.”

    Neanderthals are not extinct. They’ve just learned to buy and hoard assault weapons and ammo. You can’t recognize them with their styled hair and weight loss programs.

    Yes, Tom’s crew and he are a sideshow lot. Too bad the “car of the future” wore out. (Nobody goes to the car show anymore and NASCAR requires a federal stipend.) Motor Trend used to send a guest this time of year.

    Duras: When I was 18 I never expected to see the senility of 29. Even if you lived 200 years you’d still be 200 years old, and there’d be wear and tear on your soul. Take it from one who has lived the Job (Old Testament) experience. You don’t want to go there. Get busy and live your remaining years to the fullest.

  • ToyYoda

    Forget neanderthals!! Can you juice me up with mountain gorilla muscles so I can star in the NFL?  :)

    • JobExperience

       Lance, Tex, is that you boy?

  • DeJay79

    Death is necessary! to all of this “power through science” I say No!
    People need to Die, species need to die, new life will spring up and replace it. The process of evolution will continue and will do a much better job without man’s interference.

    Just because we have the power to do something does not make it a good thing or even the right thing to do. “With great power comes great responsibility” and we as a species should be responsible enough to stay away from these designed changes.

    Just to cite a few movies that should show us why not to do any of these things:
    Jurassic Park, I am Legend, Rise of planet of the Apes, Gattaca, The Island, In Time, and even an episode of TNG “Unnatural Selection”. Life sometimes does imitate art and I hope none of this happen.

    • scottmartin49

      Interesting point; it’s death that grants conscious meaning to life itself. Eternal life would be meaningless and, biologicly and anthropologicly, finiteness drives activity.

  • IsaacWalton

    What was that quote from Jurassic Park? “You spent so much time trying to see if you could do it, you never stop to think whether you SHOULD do it?

    So why do this? Just to prove you can? What a huge waste of time, money and brain power. 

    And bring back a neanderthal? Do you really think a woman/family would raise it to go to school? Grow it to keep it in a lab? 

    Leave this pandora’s box closed.

    I’m sure the makers of the atomic bomb knew it could kill thousands in a matter of seconds. But then again, they had to TEST that on real people now didn’t they….I guess neanderthals aren’t extinct.

    • Jasoturner

      Actually they tested in the the desert to be sure it worked before they dropped it on people.  The Trinity test in the 1940s.

  • Jasoturner

    The notion of bringing back an extinct Neanderthal strikes me as morally suspect.  While I have not thought it through completely, what bothers me can probably be loosely extracted from Huxley’s Brave New World. 

    Should our curiosity allow us to give birth to a creature with no family, no kin, no clan history, no human touchstones?  A creature alone in a way no modern human can appreciate or experience?

    And were this creature to be born, what is the end game?  To have details on the mental and physiological capabilities of a speies that no longer lives?  How does that benefit humankind exactly?

  • gretchen123

    I am alive and healthy today because of synthetic biology and the amazing advances this type if engineering has had on synthetic insulin: after using unreliable pork insulin for years to treat my type 1 diabetes, being able to use Humalog and now Novolog, synthetic, reliable, and quick-acting insulin, I am able to maintain tight control and, along with my insulin pump and continuous glucose monitor, I can be healthy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dreamingmatthew Matthew Stephenson

    What about plant life, like the American Chestnut. Could we just make a plague resistant version and bring it back?

  • DrewInGeorgia

    The Nerd in me says Go Man, Go!
    The Realist says Whoa Man, Whoa.
    Tread carefully…

  • http://www.facebook.com/lars.grantwest Lars Grant-West

    Wow. This is amazing. Scientifically phenomenal – though an ethical mine field. Glad to hear the ethics at least being discussed.
    So these species will no doubt be patented – and will therefore be “product”, including, neanderthals.
    We’re talking about resurrecting animals when we don’t value the animals that are here now. Will we just bring back a few token examples of these novelty creatures to prove we can do it? Will they supplant existing animals that function in working ecosystems? If we’re this close, the cat’s about out of the bag. It sounds like this is going to happen. We need to get well ahead of the ethical issues.

  • Scott B

    There’s no place in nature for those species. The passenger pigeon, perhaps, as it’s only been gone a few decades, but where do ancient species fit in? Those gaps in the food chains and natural order long since filled in. Who teaches them their ways?  As much as instincts govern various species, the higher you go up the genetic chains, the more they also require a teacher-student relationship from parents and groups.  These species will be relegated to life in zoos, as specimens for display, not for humans to learn from.

    What would we learn from a Neanderthal? That they’re not fit for this world? They, though not their DNA which is in is, died out for a reason, when they couldn’t cope with the changing world around them ages ago. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1408098372 Mari McAvenia

    In this case the word “adventurous” seems to mean needy & greedy. I’m sure there are women who will do anything for money including becoming a womb-for-rent to service ambitious & well funded new bio-industries.

  • nj_v2

    Stupid, arrogant humans. Can we clone extinct species? Can we custom engineer genetics to specific requirements?

    Damn, we can’t even keep from trashing the only ecosystem that supports the only known life in the universe!

    Gypsy moths, killer bees, kudzu, Asian carp… Designing species, what could possibly go wrong?

  • distractedriver

    Bringing back a four legged animal or bird is one thing.  But has George thought about the mental anguish/emotions of the living subject who’ll have the mental capacity for self reflection?  They’ll only be able to identify themselves as a social pariah.  A freak of science we brought back to life for our fancy?  We conduct science experiments on apes and then retire them to sanctuaries with social dysfunctions.  What would you do with a neanderthal who has a higher level of thinking (assumed)?  Cage him/her like any other ape and try to convince them that a caged habitat is equal to freedom?

  • ElleNoel

    This is as close to misogynism as I’ve ever heard on “On Point.” Use the word “adventurous” as a euphamism for treating a woman like a 98-degree ziploc bag one more time and I’ll really let you have it.

  • JobExperience

    Would our new climate and instability and acid rain permit? (see Silent Running starring Bruce Dern) No organism can survive without habitat space and ecological interaction.
    North American Chesnuts were massive and 200 ft. tall.

    *intended as reply to Matthew Stephenson

  • ToyYoda

    I’d like to know when regeneration of organs like kidneys, eyes, and livers will be available?  Scientific American has already shown that eyes can be grown in a petri dish.  Eyes were once thought of as a tough organ to regenerate due to it’s highly organized internals.  And now it can be grown in a dish.

    http://www.sciamdigital.com/index.cfm?fa=Products.ViewIssuePreview&ARTICLEID_CHAR=64EB4E6A-237D-9F22-E86F11351BAD6D4E

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/4V552UIAJVDHXWGWUC7PK6LNDM Bill

    A sad commentary on public priorities is that the thought of regenerating even one Neanderthal,  which will have virtually no effect on the public, creates such widespread reaction, when there is little discussion and no reaction when the Supreme Court creates an imortal class of corporate uber citizens and endows them with the right to “free speech”

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1408098372 Mari McAvenia

      Ethics are rarely considered when somebody gets an all-consuming urge to dominate all others. What kinds of rewards are these synthetic bio-engineers after? Nobel prizes (mo’ $)? Higher academic status ( mo’ $)? A massively lucrative position as CEO of a bio-engineering corporation (mo’ $)? All of the above? Any way you cut it, my hunch is that there are mo’ profits to be seized at the expense of our natural world. I think that’s the motivating force, here, too.  

      • JobExperience

        They want Billionaire love.

  • Jack Acme

     Please tell Prof. Church to get busy synthesizing heat tolerance genes for us and all the organisms we depend on to live.

  • JennaJennaeight

    What’s the possibility of developing some working synthetic wings in humans?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1408098372 Mari McAvenia

      Why?

      • JennaJennaeight

        So that humans would have the ability to fly, of course!  

        • nj_v2

          I want gills.

          • JennaJennaeight

            Yes!  Wings and gills.

          • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1408098372 Mari McAvenia

            Make mine a long, curling & multicolored striped tail. Heck, why not, since we’re only ordering up fantasy scenarios here.

          • JennaJennaeight

            Yes!  Why not dream big (or at least fun?)?

          • JobExperience

            “How ’bout some o’them high-heeled feet? ”
            Laurie
            Anderson
            Monkey’s Paw

          • nj_v2

            And a shell. I’ve always liked turtles. Maybe a long trunk, too. Elephants are cool!

            That’s it, the omniorg(anism)!

            Can live anywhere, do anything.

          • scottmartin49

            A pouch over here please.

          • DeJay79

             why so specific? just give my body the ability to change shape and function as I want that way I can have wings or gills or heat proof skin whenever I want.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1408098372 Mari McAvenia

          Why? To save a few bucks on airline tickets?  The bird’s body also has a bird’s brain. If humans could fly there would be traffic gridlocks in the sky : ) 

  • ToyYoda

    How do we know that a revived neanderthal or any extinct species is exactly the same?  The burgeoning field of epigentics has taught us that cells contain information outside of the gene that has a visible, physiological, and/or structural effect on the organism.  Even the clones from Dolly grown with Dolly’s cells were significantly weaker than Dolly herself.  We don’t have viable cells from these extinct animals. 

    I suspect that we are only scratching the surface of what information is transmitted outside the gene.

  • Jack Acme

    Neanderthal extinction no doubt involved numerous contingencies which we are unable to fully explicate. Things might have been different . . .

  • http://twitter.com/metasilk Studio Metasilk

    Wow…..

  • JobExperience

    Live long and prosper.
    Would you try transplanted insulin producing tissue if it were derived from your own stem cells? Do you keep track of diabetes cure research? It’s not like making a rabbit with fangs or patenting sickle cells, is it?

    *intended as reply to Gretchen123

  • manuel_mota

    Immense potential for harm exists in putting the resurrection of neanderthals at the forefront of discussion about synthetic biology.  In doing so, scientists invariably induce the kind of reactionary backlash that could prevent the creation of organisms to solve such huge problems as renewable generation of transportation fuels, or providing nutritious food in a world racked by climate change.  Scientists need to be far more sophisticated in discussing their work with the rest of the population.  Perhaps Dr Church wishes to be provocative, or perhaps he wishes to sell books, but either way, the potential gains in our understanding of human biology made available by resurrecting neanderthals are vastly outweighed by the harm done to life sciences by provoking the fears of a public whose understanding of our work comes via the 6 o’clock news.

  • Jack Acme

    Dodos might be delicious! They’re extinct because we ate them all. Let’s bring them back and find out, shall we?

    • Pointpanic

      YOu’re joking, right ,jack? right?

  • distractedriver

    Reclaiming a habitat by reintroducing an extinct inhabitant sounds like a pipe/bad dream.  Remember that story of a woman eating a fly?  By the end of it, she was eating elephant-sized animals.  I don’t think something like a dodo bird would be able to push out larger predators that wiped them out in the first place.

  • nj_v2

    What?!? 

    Why will “bringing back” an extinct species magically enable us to “reclaim” its habitat when we can’t protect the habitat from human destruction for the species we still have? Species extinction is at record levels and likely to accelerate.

    Much of this discussion seems absurd to me.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lars.grantwest Lars Grant-West

    Read Michael Chriton’s “Next” for a lot of discussion of the possible ethical issues here. It’s not a great story, but raises some really interesting issues. Imagine fish with advertising for Pizza Hut or something like that coded into their color patterns. If a fish like that were more successful than it’s natural counterparts, we could have reefs full of advertising. There’s a lot of potential, but a lot that’s scary.

    Things in the natural world have evolved over millions of years to deal with specific and often very subtle influences. There are interactions we barely understand, and we’re talking about going in and  playing under the hood? Are we so arrogant to assume that we can do better than the natural processes?

    Sure, there will be a lot of trial and error…which is fine with a widget – but not so much when you’re errors are also living things. Who’s going to take care of all of the Neanderthals and mammoths that aren’t candidates for publicity photos?

  • JobExperience

    A volunteer woman would have to gestate and birth.
    The Neander would need foster parents for socialization.
    It might grow up and marry a boy or girl.
    Cromagnons interbred with Neaderthals in Europe as our DNA reveals. (Max Planck Institute, Leipzig)

    *intended as reply to Jasoturner

  • Mike Robitz

    As we are in the midst of the information age and just beginning to see the dawn of the nascent century biology that Synthetic biology represents do your guests see any overlap between the two? I ask this because, if anything, DNA is just another way to store information.

  • HomeBody22

    How about regenerating plants that have gone extinct? Like strains of wheat or bananas?

  • Jack Acme

    Seriously, though, Synthetic biology, materials research, robotics, AI are all going to utterly change the direction of human civilization. Fundamental notions of what it means to be a human being will be overthrown or go extinct. Our descendents will probably be unrecognizable to us.

    • Coastghost

      Alternatively: “posterity” is fast becoming a logical consequence of “optimism”.

  • DrewInGeorgia

    I love that instrumental music, it was played during the opening scene of a movie I love called Layer Cake. It’s not dystopic science fiction like some of the other films mentioned (i.e. Jurassic Park), but if you want to watch a good film about The Best Laid Plans it’s definitely worth a view.

  • manuel_mota

    Immense potential for harm exists in putting the resurrection of neanderthals at the forefront of discussion about synthetic biology.  In doing so, scientists invariably induce the kind of reactionary backlash that could prevent the creation of organisms to solve such huge problems as renewable generation of transportation fuels, or providing nutritious food in a world racked by climate change.  Scientists need to be far more sophisticated in discussing their work with the rest of the population.  Perhaps Dr Church wishes to be provocative, or perhaps he wishes to sell books, but either way, the potential gains in our understanding of human biology made available by resurrecting neanderthals are vastly outweighed by the harm done to life sciences by provoking the fears of a public whose understanding of our work comes via the 6 o’clock news.

  • ThirdWayForward

    I think that to engineer an organism from the ground up one needs a theory of organisms — one needs a theoretical biology that doesn’t yet exist that explains which sets of processes yield stable regenerative biological organizations.

    Biological theory today is still overwhelmingly focused only on the parts, not the system-relations. That’s good enough for tweaking existing organismic “designs”, but not good enough for making anything radically new.

    It is unclear to me whether we currently have (or will ever have) the wisdom to develop novel organisms. The history of nuclear weapons should give us a great deal of pessimism about humanity’s ability to wisely deal with new, very powerful technologies.

    For replicating nanotechnologies, there is the problem of “gray goo”, of self-replication out of control. What is there to stop a novel, humanly created species from replicating like kudzu?

  • dontlookup

    Neanderthals extinct?  If you’ve watched NOVA recently, you may know that geneticists have discovered a small percentage of Neanderthal genes in modern humans, particularly modern humans whose ancestors came from the areas populated by Neanderthals.  It is possible that Neanderthals simply bred into the larger population of Homo Sapiens until only this tiny fraction of DNA remains.

  • http://profiles.google.com/rickevans033050 Rick Evans

    Recreate Jesus via cloning? Would this be The Boys from Brazil … oh … make that Nazareth?

    • nj_v2

      Jesus and the Prophets, playing next week at the Vegas Sands.

      • DrewInGeorgia

        Who would Jesus Clone?

        • nj_v2

          Elvis?

          • DrewInGeorgia

            John Lennon? Now that would be ironic..

  • redwhitebeagle

    Humans are clever and the knowledge explosion is immense.  However I am struck by the fact that we frequently do not use knowledge wisely and often these new technologies are corrupted by greed and desire for power. In addition, all advances have come with unexpected negative consequences which rarely can be forseen and some which will not be known until more time has passed.  

  • jonaw49

    This seems like patent nonsense, given the absurd propagation of our own species. Most of us will never be able to be intelligible to each other. We regularly use cruelty and violence on virtually every living thing in our territory. Yet these tinkerers continue to dissemble notions about recreating something that they themselves have basically no idea of.
    This is a ploy for attention by idiots who can’t seem to gather the facts of their own existence i.e., they should be doing something better for the extant Earth.

  • Ancientlife

    Ask:
    What about the other genetic factors tat make an organism work (mitochondrial DNA, RNA, etc…) would a Neanderthal DNA be able to create those? would it have to be a Female?
    Thanks

  • scottmartin49

    Let us never forget- the first usage of any new technology is militaristic. Humanoid warriors anyone? New diseases? How about something as simple as wheat rust used to destroy an enemies food supply?

    The potential actions of others will force the rapid evolution of these technologies-how they are brought to heel is the question we face as human beings.

  • adiggins

    We should concentrate on preserving existing species that are on the brink of extinction, and not take any comfort than we could successfully resurrect extinct species.

    Also, there are important learned cultural, behavioral and linguistic dimensions to related groups of animals, their familial and survival group interactions that are lost when they are extinct.  Genetics alone can’t replace this aspect of life.

    Perhaps more importantly, all species risk extinction if we don’t get a handle on climate change, so that’s perhaps more urgent and important than any other problem to solve.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gretchen.petersonporier Gretchen Peterson-Porier

    Listened to bits and pieces this morning and oddly enough I am near the end of reading Raising Abel by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neal Gear, a fictional novel where the center of the story is a Neanderthal boy. The book raises some very valid social and ethical points.

  • burroak

    Question: what is the margin of error for failure with Sythetic Biology? And what is the consistancy of these failure? Note to humans: tread carefully when we play with lightning.

  • Only1drvibes

    This Chimera could potentially escape like the GMO corn into our genetic stream never to be retrieved or worse extinguish Homo sapiens faster than we are now doing it to ourselves now. Stop this before it is too late.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1408098372 Mari McAvenia

      Artistic expressions of the fear of monstrous, manmade contageons go way back in human history. I see Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” & the “Island of Doctor Moreau” in this particular bio-synthetic “adventure”. Oh, and watch out for Cthulu, too.

  • adiggins

    Also, while it may be possible to resurrect a small number of individuals from an extinct species this is very different than ensuring sufficient genetic diversity to support a lasting population of formerly extinct animals.

  • dontlookup

    Michael Chriton’s whole shtick is “technology gone bad.” If nobody had ever wanted to “tinker” we’d be living the same short and brutish lives as our ancestors.

    “Me, put moldy bread on this wound?   Witchcraft, I
     say!”

    • DeJay79

       agreed, but you must admit that there is a difference between changing our outside world to fit us better and fundamentally changing ourselves to fit the outside world.

  • pjjb33

    Maybe no mother is necessary – if we could learn how an every day miracle occurs; the caterpillar turns into the butterfly when the caterpillar breaks down, its organs actually dissolve – proteins and the building blocks of life are reassembled (under the direction of the butterfly’s DNA, which has apparently laid dormant in the caterpillar), into the butterfly itself. If we understood how that happens, what could we build?

  • TheDailyBuzzherd

    Dr Moreau just called; he wants his formula back.

  • Bruce94

    Thanks On Point for two provocative shows this a.m.  Personally, I’m more interested in the potential contribution of synthetic biology to the development of alternatives to fossil fuels than I am in resurrecting the Neanderthal.

    Actually, as I understand it, synthetic biology is one of two disciplines being applied in cutting-edge research into more sustainable energy production that does not depend on photosynthesis.  This line of research recognizes the inherent limitations of photosynthesis from which virtually all our energy heretofore has been derived, whether we’re using hydrocarbons in gasoline and other fossil fuels or breaking down carbohydrates to pedal a bicycle. 

    When combined with the “extremophile” branch of biology, synthetic biologists may offer a valuable way forward in the creation of alternate fuels.  “Extremophile” biologists study microbes in exotic environments like hot springs and ocean floors, some of which absorb energy without photosynthesis, relying instead on hydrogen, ammonia, or electrical current. 

    According to these investigators, the development of so-called “electrofuels” in the future could contribute as much or more to our energy independence efforts as “biofuels” do today.  And this type of basic research is underway receiving considerable support thanks to the ARPA-E established by Obama’s much maligned stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

    One of today’s guest might be involved in or aware of this line of research.  A team from Harvard Medical School was an early recipient of a grant from the newly formed ARPA-E to create a “bacterial reverse fuel cell” — maybe a fitting subject for another program.    

    • LogicalChemist

       “cutting-edge research into more sustainable energy production that does not depend on photosynthesis”…  There are only two places to get sustainable energy- the sun, and tapping energy from the mantle via geo-thermal or some other mechanism.  For using the sun photosynthesis has proven itself as the most productive long term process.  All the others, have not made any long term headway, except in very limited environments.  Photosynthesis is only ~1% efficient.  If bio-engineering could improve that to 5% it might be possible to produce the energy we use that way.  At 1% we’d have to plant 2/3 of the planet for synfuels.

      The only other currently viable process would be 4th or 5th gen nuclear reactors that are intrinsically safe- i.e. not pressurized reactor of any sort, but liquid metal or molten salt reactors that cannot be used to produce weapon’s grade materials.  The LFTR(liquid flouride thorium reactor) which was prototyped at Oak Ridge for a number of years would be a good candidiate.  It requires complicated fuel processing that makes it very difficult to produce weapons material and operates at no pressure, and can easily be made intrinsically safe(if anything goes wrong and the reactor overheats it dumps the coolant into a cooling tank where it solidifies and the reactor shuts down).

      Waste heat from nuclear power can fairly easily be used to power synthetic fuels plants that produce liquid fuels from CO2 and water, methane, coal, or oil.  In fact the process is currently used in South Africa and was used by Germany in WW-II to produce fuels to supplement their oil supplies.

      Microbial electrosynthesis using power from nuclear would be 100′s of times more efficient and less costly than solar power.  A modern reactor can “burn up” more than 90% of the mass to produce electricity, compared to 3-5% currently.  A few pounds of fissionable material could produce all the energy we currently use in a year.  ME would be another way to use that power to provide economic fuels needed for portable energy.

      • Bruce94

        Thanks for your reply.  Your scenario is exciting for a layman like myself to consider especially if, as you suggest, the current or next generation of nuclear power plants have or will overcome earlier difficulties including radioactive waste disposal, excessive heat at the reactor site and potential proliferation of weapons-grade material.

        Your comment also clarifies the efficiency argument for this type of research.  In my post I should have typed, “this line of research recognizes the inherent inefficiencies of photosynthesis.”  The term “limitations” might be more applicable to “peak oil” and global warming arguments based on proven oil reserves and anticipated flows. 

        In any case, there are probably no magic bullets for securing our energy future, but if figs. from the Energy Information Administration are correct, I would hope we could do better than the 0.9% energy production that we are currently getting from geothermal, solar, tidal, wind, wood and waste. 

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/BSTEMHAHL6JMDAK7BGERK6T2DQ bigtruck

    No job too dirty for a scientist.

    • TyroneJ

      Remember that thought next time you need medical care, take a pill, or eat anything made of corn, potatoes or any other plants whose present form was created by humans over the centuries, or drink milk from a European milk cow, transport yourself by any means besides walking or riding on an animal, use anything made of metal or plastic, etc. Without Science, half or more of all children born would die before reaching adulthood, and your life expectancy would be less than 40 years. Unfortunately, your lack of understanding of how much your life depends on Science makes you a poster child of the poor state of Science Education.

      • Eliezer Pennywhistler

         Eyeglasses.  Orthopedic shoes.  Telephones.  Radio.  Radio.

  • TomK_in_Boston

    Now I finally understand the next step for the Tea Party.

  • Outside_of_the_Box

    If possible, totally unethical. Period.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Lawrence-Kelley/717881317 Lawrence Kelley

    Reminds me that California is currently fighting for public, full-disclosure rights for food containing genetically-modified content (“Franken-Food”). The EU has had disclosure rights since the early 90′s. Wonder how Match.com would handle disclosure for Neanderthals / The Geico Commercial Guy? :) More seriously, BBC World Service radio has done a thorough job of debating the ethical risks / benefits over the years, ever since completion of 1999′s Human Genome project, and so I suspect well-formed U.N. or informal int’l guidelines already exist for this technology. Fascinating program! – Larry / Clifton Park, New York 

  • Pointpanic

    “WE have no control, THAT”S the illusion”
                      -Dr. Ellie Sattler ,Jurassic Park

  • Pointpanic

    Before attempting any resurection experimwents via synthetic biology, Humankind must first learn humility in the face of nature and the cosmos. Our history shows that we’ve a long way to go before we;re ever ready to establish an ethical foundation for this frankenscience.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/LQ2P73RLKLUCYVPJEC23A7U5UA Crownover

    Why does the discussion about bioethics begin with the hypothetical creation of a neanderthal being?  The discussion should be happening now about all species of creatures who are being sacrificed in the name of protecting and preserving humans. Animals used in experimentation suffer painful deaths in the name of our science. The discussion needs to be about why  degree of intelligence is the deciding factor in whether an individual is enslaved, tortured, humiliated, and killed to satisfy others’ egotistical curiosity or for the betterment of another species.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ken-Biron/545036637 Ken Biron

    Humans need no cloning.  We need to hold our self’s back from mass breeding as we expand to the planets. Bio computers would be subject to all the frailties of mankind, eventually controlled phobias, phycos and other brain conditions and diseases will be mimicked as we get more confident in our ability to control the demon.  Time is unfolding rapidly these days, let the earth catch up.  We have an eternity to explore the universe.

  • drjones2012

    Man better mine his manners. He is not God. Look at mistakes we already made. The speaker from Harvard couldn’t disclose the true reason for the research, who is really founding him, and why-that was creepy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-Sehestedt/100001422999274 Mark Sehestedt

    Great program.  One of the best in a long while.  My only complaint was that it was too short.  I hope you’ll have a follow-up program (or two!) on this subject in the near future.  Other questions I’d like to see asked:

    We’re talking about a regenesis of extinct species.  What about modifying existing species?  If I stand the chance of seeing a woolly mammoth in my lifetime, what are my chances of seeing a Tauntaun or a Bantha?

    What are the potential unseen ramifications of monkeying around with microbes?  Trying to create new super fuels or medicines is great.  What are the chances we might accidentally create the next Black Death?

    Would a Neanderthal have Second Amendment rights, and would they be welcome at Tea Party rallies?

  • http://www.facebook.com/robby.boyer.14 Robby Boyer

    If we can genetically engineer crops, then why not humans, we as humans are living longer ,so  I can see the prospects of genetically engineered people. great topic.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Page/100002550930740 Andrew Page

    On the subject of creating a Neanderthal child, let’s talk about the ethics of creating a child who is by his/her sheer nature is going to be their own racial group of one.  Are we going to send this child to school or just keep them in a paddock?  Mainstream him/her?  Kids are bullied at even the best of private schools for appearance infractions as slim as having red hair.   What do you think the savages that made Phoebe Prince hang herself would do here, other than drool at the prospects.

  • Lisa Anamasi

    One point, I can’t get past, is the idea that we have evolved beyond Neanderthals – so why would we want to bring them back?  

    Another is that, it seems to me, that people struggle everyday with the decision to following through with a pregnancy, or not, based on the well-being of the child, be it birth defects or harmful illness that spur this decision.  Why would we chose to bring life to a child knowing full well that it would suffer terrific disease from our modern day life that it’s immune system would never be able to fight?  Also, there is a high likelyhood that they would be a stigmatized group from the get-go.  “Neanderthal” has taken on a certain negative connotation these days.  That would be a hard one to change.  I imagine that there would be a backlash from the group one day in the future, should we go through with this now.   Ideas like this make me fear the lack of ethics in science.  

  • Paul Levinson

    for more speculation on Neanderthal – modern human connections, see The Silk Code

ONPOINT
TODAY
Sep 2, 2014
U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., talks with Mark Wilson, event political speaker chairperson, with his wife Elain Chao, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, at the annual Fancy Farm Picnic in Fancy Farm, Ky., Saturday, August 4, 2012. (AP)

Nine weeks counting now to the midterm elections. We’ll look at the key races and the stakes.

Sep 2, 2014
Confederate spymaster Rose O'Neal Greenhow, pictured with her daughter "Little" Rose in Washington, D.C.'s Old Capitol Prison in 1862. (Wikimedia / Creative Commons)

True stories of daring women during the Civil War. Best-selling author Karen Abbott shares their exploits in a new book: “Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy.”

RECENT
SHOWS
Sep 1, 2014
Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Jarvis Jones (95) recovers a fumble by Carolina Panthers quarterback Derek Anderson (3) in the second quarter of the NFL preseason football game on Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014 in Pittsburgh. (AP)

One outspoken fan’s reluctant manifesto against football, and the big push to reform the game.

 
Sep 1, 2014
This Friday, Aug. 22, 2014 photo shows a mural in in the Pullman neighborhood of Chicago dedicated to the history of the Pullman railcar company and the significance for its place in revolutionizing the railroad industry and its contributions to the African-American labor movement. (AP)

On Labor Day, we’ll check in on the American labor force, with labor activist Van Jones, and more.

On Point Blog
On Point Blog
Our Week In The Web: August 29, 2014
Friday, Aug 29, 2014

On hypothetical questions, Beyoncé and the unending flow of social media.

More »
Comment
 
Drew Bledsoe Is Scoring Touchdowns (In The Vineyards)
Thursday, Aug 28, 2014

Football great — and vineyard owner — Drew Bledsoe talks wine, onions and the weird way they intersect sometimes in Walla Walla, Washington.

More »
Comment
 
Poutine Whoppers? Why Burger King Is Bailing Out For Canada
Tuesday, Aug 26, 2014

Why is Burger King buying a Canadian coffee and doughnut chain? (We’ll give you a hint: tax rates).

More »
1 Comment