Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008


I'm not sure why this hasn't gotten any attention in the U.S. - perhaps it will hit the fan shortly - but researchers in the UK have created what the BBC is calling a "part human, part animal hybrid embryo. Actually it isn't really. What they did, as far as I can tell from this scientifically illiterate story, was to use somatic cell nuclear transfer to place a human nucleus (the story just says "human DNA" but that doesn't make sense) into a cow ovum. They allowed the embryo to develop into an early stage blastocyst. I'm a bit surprised it did actually, but there you are. Previous attempts at somatic cell nuclear transfer with human material have resulted in embryos that would not grow past the 8 cell stage, so if this is correct, it's much more of a breakthrough than the BBC reporter seems to realize -- it really is the first human clone that appears to be viable.

Anyway, if I'm interpreting what happened correctly, the embryo is not really a human/animal hybrid. It's human except for having bovine mitochondria -- the endosymbiotic descendants of ancient archea that do the essential work of cellular metabolism. Were such an embryo to be allowed to grow into a human, I would expect it to appear entirely human and show no more abnormalities than a clone made with a human gamete.

Naturally, the Catholic Church is crying "abomination." Rather than talk about this further here, I'll finally get around to discussing Rusell Korobkin's stem cell century, specifically his chapter on the ethics of somatic cell nuclear transfer. The cow ovum is a bit of a wrinkle, but it really doesn't add much to the basic ethical problem, in my view -- although it may seem like a major issue at first glance.

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