Synthetic Genetic Shakespeares

Examining the implications of science and technology

Looking for Evidence of Life on Other Planets? Check Out the Rings of Saturn

Seeking evidence of life in our solar system by drawing on what is known of terrestrial biology, NASA scientists have followed the water.  The good news is that there are places with plenty of it around today or once had large amounts of it in the past.

Recognizing evidence of life forms, even types that are functionally analogous to terrestrial organisms, is not necessarily a simple task.  The Viking Project (1) featured two landers which executed several experiments to reveal evidence of living microorganisms.  Although some unusual chemical reactivity was observed in the soil samples, the consensus is that the Viking lander results cannot be taken as definitive evidence of living organisms.

Viking lander


Powerful New Techniques – Definitive Answers?

The Viking Project landers melded impressive technology with a well-executed mission plan that was completed under extremely challenging conditions.  Advances in genetic analysis technology will enable future missions to probe for life on Mars and elsewhere with more robust methods than anything available in 1976.  In principle the new generation of explorers will no longer be limited to detecting the metabolic activities of living microbes.  Genetic-based approaches may reveal the hereditary material of cells even if they happen to be inactive or are dead. 

Culture-independent methods also have significant limitations of their own and may be confounded by minute levels of terrestrial contamination.  Notwithstanding their new capabilities, investigators may once again be confronted with samples that fail to yield clear evidence of the presence of microbial life. However, if experiments can be devised and conducted such that contamination is improbable, systematic surveillance efforts using genetic methods may make it possible to be conclude that microorganisms like those now found on Earth were absent or present at extremely low amounts in the samples tested.

“Viruses are astronomically abundant” (2)

Noting viral particles are the most numerous structures on Earth derived from biological activities and their intimate involvement in fundamental ecological and evolutionary processes, a group of scientists is proposing efforts to employ them in projects to detect extraterrestrial life (2).  The total number of viruses on our planet is vast and a new study reveals that uncounted billions of them are blown from ocean waters into the air to travel far and wide.  Hundreds of millions or more settle out harmlessly around us every day (3).  On planet Earth at this point in time, wherever life is present virus particles are pervasive.  Perhaps finding viruses or their molecular traces in extraterrestrial samples would provide solid evidence something living is – or was – in them.              

Because it is possible to recognize many viruses by virtue of their odd shapes, in one sense looking for virus particles represents the ultimate culture-independent biology search method.  Samples can be examined without concern as to whether any viable organisms are present or the conditions/nutrients required for them to be metabolically active.  Whether the viruses harbor genetic materials composed of RNA, DNA, or something else, are viable, or have been inviable for years will not matter.  All methods have intrinsic limitations and one inescapable problem with looking for virus particles is that fact that most are tiny.  Still, although systematic direct searches for viruses will be laborious, including them or bio-signature proxies (2) in future missions to find evidence for life in our solar system seems well worth the effort.  It could turn out that describing viruses as “astronomically abundant” (2) could be quite accurate.

Where to Look for Extraterrestrial Viruses?

 A few places in our solar system may harbor water oceans, but a small moon of Saturn, Enceladus, may be the go-to place for life-seekers (4).  This moon has an orbital friction energy source, liquid water and precursor molecules (5).  But it also has something special – cryovolcanic geysers that spray the deep ocean materials far out into space – where it would be (comparatively) easy to sample and analyze them.  A probe would not have to land, it would only need to position itself in the outflow to collect samples from deep within the hidden ocean.  Experiments have revealed that at certain microbes are able to be active under conditions mimicking those on Enceladus (6).

EnceladusEnceladus jets

Maybe We Have Already Seen Them

The spectacular rings of Saturn harbor substantial quantities of water ice. Embedded in the E Ring, Enceladus seems to be the source of the microscopic water ice particles composing this structure.  When we look at the rings of Saturn maybe we are seeing the outer space analogue of viruses tossed about on an extremely long voyage.            

Saturn e


Many thanks to Dr. Curtis Suttle for bringing the story to my attention.  To find out more about Dr. Suttle’s research visit his University of British Columbia web page.     


(1) Viking 1 & 2.

(2) Aaron J. Berliner et al.   Astrovirology: Viruses at Large in the Universe.  Astrobiology 18(2), February 1, 2018.

(3) Adam Wernick.   It’s Raining Viruses, But Don’t Panic., 9 March 2018.

(4) Enceladus.

(5) Annie Sneed.   Excitement Builds for the Possibility of Life on Enceladus.  Scientific American, 28 June 2016.

(6) Meriame Berboucha. Is There Life on Enceladus?  Forbes, 28 February 2018.



Hazard Ahead – Recognizing the Signs of Ecosystem Degradation

Gigantic patches of plastic garbage now floating in the oceans (1) signal loud and clear the Anthropocene Epoch has arrived.  Additional hallmarks such as the appearance of distinct radionuclides and increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are impossible to appreciate as directly, but can all be quantified.  However, the epoch of human stewardship of our planet is also characterized by losses.

The Vanishings

In addition to observing physical alterations such as a general worldwide decrease in the extent of ice masses and permafrost subsoils, human beings have also altered the composition and function of living communities. Despite public concern over extirpations and extinctions, disappearance stories have become commonplace news.  Recent news articles have highlighted the predicament of right whales in the North Atlantic (2) and vultures in India (3) trying to survive in the increasingly hostile environments exploited by humans.

The Big Picture Revealed by Small Things

Larger and better known species capture the most public attention when it finally becomes apparent they are endangered.  Often not considered is the fact that species do not live – or die – alone (4).  When milkweed stands are destroyed by crop-protecting herbicides, we may notice the Monarch butterflies that feed and reproduce on them vanish as well.  However, milkweeds harbor a lesser-known menagerie and these creatures will disappear from locations where their home plants are extirpated.


Milkweed beetle

Each visible loss should alert us a gap of unknown dimensions has appeared in the web of living species composing a functioning ecosystem.  Scientists often characterize natural systems in terms of goods and services they provide.  How many losses will it take to cause an ecosystem to malfunction to a point that the essential services we exploit begin to decline?  Are there signs we are reaching that point?

The notable declines in insect populations are particularly ominous (5, 6, 7).  These losses may reflect the cumulative impacts of practices of pesticide use combined with many factors and evidence now suggests a general decimation of insects is occurring in large areas.  The most worrisome part of insect losses is the fact that this order is such a significant part of ecosystems.

In her book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson asked readers to think about a future in which an environment mismanaged by humans could become so toxic that many species sharing our world could no longer thrive.  She illuminated how the final stage might look for us if we failed to heed the warning signs of emerging problems and take corrective actions.  Is it possible insect losses we see today are the harbingers of bigger, more obvious problems soon to come?  It may not be long before we see a patchwork of species losses become focal ecosystem function failures.  How could we end up in a silent Spring?  Perhaps we are seeing the first stages of the processes unfolding now.  Not having to clean bugs off our car windshield (6, 7) may actually be a subtle warning sign of a quietly arriving disaster.


April 22, 2018 – Earth Day

(1) Charles J. Moore.   Choking the Oceans With Plastic.  The New York Times, 25 August 2014.

(2) Sarah Gibbens.   Bad Breeding Season Spells Trouble for Endangered Whale.  National Geographic, 27 February 2018.

(3) Express News Service.   Tamil Nadu Gets Vulture Shock. The New Indian Express, 16 April 2018.

(4) Tyler Kokjohn.   The Little Things Count.  Arizona Wilderness Advocate, Issue 3, Summer 2003.

(5) Nathan Donley.   Missing All the Monarch Butterflies?  They Face a New Pesticide Threat on the Horizon.  The Kansas City Star, 19 March 2018.

(6) Gretchen Vogel.   Where Have All the Insects Gone?  Science, 10 May 2017.

(7) Tom Spears.   Canada is Actually Running Short of Bugs.  The London Free Press, 24 September 2017.


Gene Drives – Will Conqueror Biomolecular Bots Dictate a New Book of Life?

Declining vulture populations have received some recent news coverage. The number of human rabies cases in India is not known which makes it difficult to establish clear correlations between vulture population losses and human rabies increases. However, the notion some ecological changes yield unanticipated consequences and potential health risks still holds.


Gene Drives – Will Conqueror Biomolecular Bots Dictate a New Book of Life?
By Guest Blogger,
Tyler Kokjohn, Ph.D.

 A new DNA engineering technique known by the strange name CRISPR-Cas9 allows scientists to edit the genomes of living cells with unprecedented ease and precision (1).  The method has only been in wide use for a few years, so it is hard to envision all the breakthroughs it will foster.  However, it is already clear the implications will extend far beyond the laboratory and clinic.

Conqueror WormThe CRISPR-Cas9 DNA editing system is versatile, but scientists have extended its capabilities by creating powerful new forms of this technology which function as gene drives (2).  A gene drive disperses genetic alterations or DNA cargo rapidly through a population by overruling the normal patterns of inheritance.  A recipient of a gene drive receives the complete genetic information needed to synthesize the enzymes and guide…

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It’s Raining Viruses

Our planet teems with viruses.  Earth’s atmosphere has been recognized to harbor virus particles, but a group headed up by Dr. Curtis Suttle has now performed some experiments revealing the total numbers are stunning (1).  They estimate that 800 million virus particles settle out onto each square meter of the planet daily.  You may view this paper here.


Your Numbers May Vary

The prevailing wisdom holds that some viruses produced near the surfaces of terrestrial or marine sites become airborne due to weather events.  It is also conceivable that they are actively produced in situ through infection of viable microbes suspended in the atmosphere.  Dr. Suttle’s group quantified virus fallout in a mountain region of Spain.  Assuming that area has substantially better air quality than many parts of the globe, it seems a safe bet that their estimate could turn out to be conservative.  Also, local weather patterns, season and the proximity of potential virus reservoirs such as productive coastal ocean waters will undoubtedly influence the virus seeding and settle-out rates.

Should I Be Worried?

Large scale weather patterns influence planetary ecology through the mobilization of key dust-borne mineral nutrients (2).  Satellite imagery confirms that small dust particles – and presumably bacteria and viruses as well – swept high into the atmosphere by storms are able to traverse impressive distances over our planet.  The body of evidence suggests quite a few viruses are in the air around you. 

Does this mean we are in danger?  Most of the viruses in the world do not produce human disease.  In addition, we are able to fend off the vast majority of would-be microbe and virus invaders with a combination of effective physical barriers and immune responses.  The figure below shows some of the bacterial and fungal agents suspended in the air a few feet above ground level at Glendale, Arizona.  This sample of 1,000 liters was taken on a clear day with light breezes.  Only a fraction of the total microbes actually present in the air sample were revealed in this assay because not all the cells would grow on this agar medium under the incubation conditions employed.  An adult will inspire that volume of air in around 2 hours.

Phoenix Air Sample

Viewing viruses solely as adversaries is probably too limited an appraisal of their ecological roles.  The interior and exterior surfaces of our bodies are colonized by large, metabolically active and diverse microbial populations.  Eight hundred million viruses falling onto each square meter of the planet is certainly an impressive number, but we may absorb 50 times more than that every day through our intestines (3).  The normal microbial flora conveys important health benefits leading to speculations that these viruses are helpful as well.  The problem is that we simply do not know much about the Universe of viruses lurking in and all around us.

Phage attack

So, Where Do They Come From?

The dynamics of disease epidemics produced by even the best understood viruses puzzle us at times.  For example, recent appearances of avian influenza in the U.S. Midwest were hard to track back directly to waterfowl reservoirs (4) or biosecurity shortcomings.  For years the most economical explanation was that a wind-borne spread process must have accounted for some transmission.  Maybe that notion no longer seems so far-fetched.


Could viruses have arrived on Earth through a Panspermia process after being seeded into space from Mars or the clouds of Venus through mechanisms unknown?  Or maybe they have come from much further by hitchhiking on matter such as ‘Oumuamua traversing interstellar space (5).  The current evidence suggests our viruses are most likely home-grown, but perhaps a future Mars rover mission will deploy a capture device or carefully sort through some dust piles just to see what exactly is blowing around and settling out. Maybe we will find that virus traces (6) still reign over the red planet.    

(1) Jim Robbins.   Trillions Upon Trillions of Viruses Fall From the Sky Each Day.  The New York Times, 13 April 2013.

(2) Francie Diep. Saharan Dust Feeds Atlantic Ocean Plankton.  Scientific American\

(3) Giorgia Guglielmi.   Does a Sea of Viruses Inside Our Body Help Keep Us Healthy?  Science, 21 November 2017.

(4) Tom Polansek.   U.S. Bird Experts Mystified by Avian Flu Spread.  Reuters, 13 March 2015.


(6) Aaron J. Berliner et al.   Astrovirology: Viruses at Large in the Universe.  Astrobiology 18(2):207-223.


Never Sell the Clones

Sunday evening, March 11, 2018, 60 Minutes aired a story about how cloned ponies have infiltrated polo in Argentina (1).  A multi-faceted account reported by Lesley Stahl, it is well worth your time.

An accident involving a prized pony may have started it all.  Before the animal was euthanized, the owner, a champion polo player and noted pony breeder directed a veterinarian to preserve skin cell samples.  In 2006 he was anticipating the day might come when it would be possible to resurrect his lost pony.  His foresight paid off.

Several animal species have been cloned and the technology is generally available.  However, the work is complicated and expensive making the cloning of companion or champion animals a game for the well-funded (2).  Using cells harvested from several of their best horses the polo breeders have created more than 100 clones.  These activities are legal and permissible under the rules of polo.   


Nature vs. Nurture Again

Does having the right genes make a champion polo pony or are a good environment and proper training the most important factors?  The 60 Minutes program reveals the clones are raised in a truly extraordinary environment featuring special diets, expert care and superb training.  Despite some subtle physical differences, the discussion that the clones possess the aptitudes and dispositions of their progenitors is quite interesting.  No claims are made that the clones are totally identical to their ancestors – some spontaneous mutations, mostly inconsequential, will always be present.  In addition, the clones are produced in surrogate mares.  That means the gestational environment will be close, but not identical to, the conditions for the originals.  Environmental conditions exert some influence over gene expression and development.   

Couldn’t expert breeders accomplish the same thing as the high-tech cloners?  In one sense they already did exactly that – the clones were derived from ponies created by just such methods.  The other consideration is that the clones beg the question as to which animals are the best – that decision was already made and carried forward into the future through cloning.  But, can anyone be sure that donor animals selected possessed the best polo pony genetic profile there ever can be?

The ultimate test for polo ponies is success on the field of competition.  In a championship match of clones vs. breeders, the clones prevailed by the narrowest of margins (1).  Perhaps this reflects the fact that the human riders also play a significant role in the competition.  In a situation where both horses and riders are top flight, it would appear cloned ponies did not offer any huge competitive advantage.

As is the case for ponies produced in the traditional ways, the value of clone-sired foals is based on the pedigree of their ancestors.  Cloned ponies are mated with champion stock and the foals may command a high price – sold for a reported maximum price of $250,000 (1).  The pony breeder/cloner interviewed noted something interesting about the fate of the cloned animals.  They are never sold.  The reason is simple, if you marketed them it would not be long before everybody had the same miracle stock.  End of mystique and/or competitive advantage.   

The Future                             

The amount of tissue needed to clone a champion polo pony is small and perhaps misappropriation of clones will become a problem.  Or the issues of safeguarding clones might get even more complex.  It may become necessary to update the definition of clone (3) yet again as scientists begin developing more powerful genetic manipulation technologies (4).  For example, what if new technologies allow someone to take the genomic sequence of a champion and simply introduce all the genetic changes that turn an ordinary animal into a proven top performer?  Is that clone infringement?  As the cloners should understand, each new technology opens up new possibilities.  The cat-and-mouse intrigues of elite Olympic athletes attempting to gain advantage (5) suggests that competitive forces might spur the emergence of a genomics high technology race in the polo pony world of the future.

Never Sell the Clones

For now, polo pony foals derived from champion stock are valuable.  However, it is uncertain how much genetic variability exists in breeding stocks.  Perhaps there is a magic genetic profile that only the champion animals possess.  It may not take long to determine if that is true.  Refusing to sell clones is a brilliant, if potentially temporary, business strategy.  In the future persons unable to purchase a genetic champion pony may be able to construct one of their own.       


Thanks to Carol Rainey for making certain I saw the 60 Minutes story on polo pony clones.


(1) Lesley Stahl.   The Clones of Polo.  60 Minutes, (CBS News), 11 March 2018.

 (2) Matt Stevens.   Barbra Streisand Cloned Her Dog. For $50,000, You Can Clone Yours.  The New York Times, 28 February 2018.

(3) National Human Genome Research Institute.

(4) D. Boeke et al. 2016.  The Genome Project-Write.  Science, 8 July 2016, [353(6295):126-127].

(5) Bret Stetka.   Have We Reached the Athletic Limits of the Human Body?  Scientific American, 5 August 2016.


Alternative Peer Review

A recently published scientific journal article reporting on the strange remains dubbed the Atacama Humanoid produced a sensation ( The Atacama Humanoid Debacle – Did Scientists Forget the Big Picture?).  The appearance of the tiny, almost skeletal remains was so unusual it prompted speculations something alien had been discovered.  The current verdict of the scientists is essentially that the remains known as Ata are those of a human female harboring some novel mutations affecting skeletal development.  And that’s when the troubles began for the scientists.


The original Ata story was covered extensively by the news media as was this new, definitive study.  However, the latest publicity prompted outraged questions about the ‘discovery,’ transport over international borders and disposition of what had just been unequivocally proved to be the remains of a human being.  The scientists and the journal are both being criticized for apparent failures to ensure the source material and derivative samples for the study had been acquired lawfully and handled in accord with ethical standards for research on human remains.  Whether any of the anonymous peer reviewers or editors raised ethical objections to the project during the manuscript review process is not known.    

But, Wait!  There’s More!

Having a published paper spark international outrage along with charges of unethical conduct would have been headache enough for most scientists, but now a new problem has emerged for the authors and the journal.  Dr. Steven Greer, who had once cooperated with some of the journal article authors on the Ata investigation is making some explosive allegations on YouTube (The Atacama Coverup).  Were the investigators, peer reviewers and journal editors all so incompetent that the central conclusions of the paper are worthless?  Is Ata not human?  To address these issues Dr. Greer is proposing to undertake an unconventional action.

Alternative Peer Review

Dr. Greer revealed in a Twitter post that he has at least 2 experts working on what he is terming a peer review.  It is unclear whether this review will be posted as a commentary to the journal article, submitted as a letter-to-the-editor or published independently.  Also unclear is whether the journal has agreed to consider these comments or is even aware of this activity. 

In a broad sense, any evaluation by knowledgeable persons regarding the merits and failings of a published study would constitute a peer review.  However, in the sense the term is customarily used by scientific journals, a formal peer review process is completed before any articles are published.  If a person(s) has information a published work is erroneous or fraudulent, the journal editors would probably accept that input and decide if corrections or even a retraction are required. 

Dr. Greer holds an unconventional world view and, as is his right to do, he rejected the conclusions about the Atacama humanoid remains.  It will be interesting to see what his peer review yields.  Will his experts prove the entire study is bogus or will they disagree only with some aspects of data interpretation, but not others?  Will he forward his review to the journal?  Will he allow others to critique his peer review findings?  Perhaps what the journal decides is irrelevant to Dr. Greer.  Perhaps simply being able to brand the original article scientific fake news and posting an alternative peer review will meet his needs.

It will be interesting to see how this dispute plays out. 




The Atacama Humanoid Debacle – Did Scientists Forget the Big Picture?

The tiny skeletal remains ‘discovered’ in the Atacama region of Chile first drew wide attention because its strange appearance invited speculations of an extraterrestrial origin (1).  A team of investigators spearheaded by Dr. Garry Nolan conducted a whole-genome analysis to demonstrate it (she) was human, probably linked to the local community and carried mutations in genes associated with bone development.  The published, peer-reviewed study (1) was well done and reached some definitive conclusions.  However, this paper touched off an international controversy (2, 3) that has totally eclipsed the technical findings.     

It Should Have Been So Good

When it came to the laboratory work and data analyses, Dr. Nolan and his collaborators stayed true to scientific principles.  From the outset their assessments unequivocally dashed all hopes ‘Ata’ was an alien.  Recognizing the potential to reveal novel genetic findings and finding the resources to bring their work to completion, the group ultimately submitted a manuscript to a peer-reviewed scientific journal. 

Judging from the published paper, the team of scientists were also quite honest in some of their description of the history of Ata.  Clearly, the journal editors and peer reviewers would have been well aware that this sample and its story were unusual.  Based on the manuscript review history, the document required revision before it was accepted for publication.  This suggests the referees had undertaken a thoughtful examination of the work and the authors were able to address any editorial concerns.   

Cutting Corners and Retrospective Rationales

At the level of the data, this work was a scientific success and interesting.  The controversy exploded over the issues surrounding the ‘discovery,’ legal export and disposition of human remains (2, 3).  Again, judging by the published paper, the authors who were careful in so many ways omitted a few details in their formal description of the sample. 

Corner cut

Two of the authors reacting to the uproar claimed they had no involvement or knowledge as to how the sample was obtained along with a variation of no-one-complained-earlier (3).  The retrospective rationales offered to this point by the researchers and administrators have not been entirely convincing.  A we-had-no-knowledge plea will not work – investigators are expected to get the necessary background information to establish remains were collected and transported in accord with all regulations.  The nobody-complained-earlier excuse is ridiculous on its face and constitutes no justification for anything. 

Were investigators exempt from Institutional Review Board (IRB) oversight because they initially thought Ata was not human?  At some point, over five years ago (4), that possibility had been eliminated.  Whether or not the IRB decided the work was exempt from its oversight, other rules apply to acquisition and work with human remains.  Again, the Ata story is complicated enough that an extra measure of caution was clearly indicated.

An Ethics Void

Q.  How many scientists, editors and peer reviewers does it take to publish an ethical study of human remains?

From the outset it should have been clear to all involved that Ata was unusual in almost every way.  The scientific journal paper has 15 co-authors.  Possibly they concentrated on performing their assigned piece of the project or assumed everything had been approved as necessary.  Somehow, in a study intended to dispel speculations about the origins of the remains named Ata, it appears everyone forgot to consider the big picture implications of her tragic story.     

Academic journals provide an important bastion of defense against rules transgressions and/or unethical behavior.  Whether Ata was human was not in doubt when the manuscript was submitted for peer review.  It may or may not be true that Ata is not personally identifiable, but both the investigators and journal needed to proactively certify the rules for acquisition, transport across international borders and disposition of human remains had been followed.  Given the apparent shortcomings, the manuscript should have been an excellent candidate for peremptory rejection by the editors.  However, after scanning the paper, looking over the journal instructions to authors and reading the after-the-fact rationalizations I now wonder if rules and ethics received much consideration by anyone involved in this chain of events.  What really seems to be best characterized as an ethics void may have been exposed by public outrage.

Q.  How many scientists, editors and peer reviewers does it take to publish an ethical study of human remains?

A.  In this instance we can only establish that the number appeared to be greater than 17.  


(1) Sanchita Bhattacharya et al.   Whole-genome Sequencing of Atacama Skeleton Shows Novel Mutations Linked With Dysplasia.  Genome Research 28(4):423-431, 22 March 2018.

(2) Sarah Zhang.   The Controversial Study of a Girl Who Ufologists Called ‘Alien.’ The Atlantic, 29 March 2018.

(3) Carl Zimmer.   Chile and Its Scientists Protest Research on Tiny Mummy.  The New York Times, 28 March 2018.

(4) Carl Zimmer.   Was Tiny Mummy in the Atacama Alien?  No, but the Real Story is Almost as Strange.  The New York Times, 22 March 2018.


A Microbiologist Evaluates Dr. Greer’s Messages

Publication of a scientific study of some strange remains sometimes known as the Atacama humanoid has resulted in controversy. However, issues regarding the precise origins and proper disposition of the humanoid were clear years before the paper was published. See also


Evaluating Dr. Greer’s Messages

By Guest Blogger,

Tyler A. Kokjohn, Ph.D.

AnencephalyEd Uthman, MD Anencephalic Human Fetus (courtesy Dr. Ed Uthman, MD)

Getting too far ahead of the data may be risky and few situations illustrate that better than the Atacama humanoid story presented by Dr. Steven Greer.  Despite the obviously strange appearance of the remains, recently released laboratory test results do not support an extraterrestrial origin for the entity (1, 2).  A preliminary analysis of mitochondrial (mt) DNA sequences has revealed although the entity is not a New World primate, it shares genetic kinship with people indigenous to the area in which the tiny body was recovered (2, 3).Notwithstanding the awkward discord between his initial assertions regarding the origins of the remains and the actual lab results, Dr. Greer continues to hatch still more factually unsupported speculations regarding extraterrestrial connections (3).

Judging ‘Preliminary’ Results

The report issued by Dr. Garry Nolan of…

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Re-enacting Frankenstein – It Can’t Happen Here, Can It?

Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus is now 200 years old, but this dark masterpiece of fiction still shakes us because it seems so familiar.  With three-parent babies, gene editing the human germline and reproductive cloning, violations of once sacred boundaries by scientists now seem almost routine.  How will these modern tales of fiction-turned-fact play out?

An Unsettling Proposal

Dr. David Barash has proposed constructing human-chimpanzee hybrids (“humanzees”) is scientifically feasible and a useful, superb idea (1).  He envisions a laboratory creation that would be neither human nor chimpanzee, but something identifiably intermediate.  The utility of the work?  These living missing links would provide objective proof human beings are not wholly separate from all the so-called lesser animals, but merely a part of an evolutionary continuum.  Once confronted with our true nature, human beings would presumably decide to treat our animal kin better.        

It is important to state that creating humanzees is not technically feasible at this moment.  However, the extraordinary pace of biotechnology evolution suggests we might not have to wait too long before such hybrids could be created.                              

And Then What?

Taking action to prevent animal abuse is certainly noble, so why is the proposal to create humanzees to achieve that specific goal so unsettling?  What happens after the demonstration has been completed and these living creations have served our purposes?  A fundamental message of Frankenstein is one of taking responsibility for our deeds.  How would scientists meet their obligations to the “few unfortunates” that were created as exhibits for a learning exercise?  

The notion that this project is dedicated to halting animal abuse seems to preclude summary executions for the hybrid creatures.  How will the creators ensure the unique needs of these unfortunates are met for what could turn out to be long periods of time?  They cannot be repatriated to the wild for these artificial constructs would have no home in nature.  Will it be safe and appropriate to keep them incarcerated as lab mascots?  Who will render a ruling as to whether or not a human hybrid possesses an immortal soul? 


It seems one lesson of Frankenstein was taken to heart; the proposal is to synthesize several unfortunates so, in principle, these beings would not necessarily end up totally alone. 

It Can’t Happen Here, Can It?

Make no mistake, the basic humanzee creation proposal is a re-enactment of the Frankenstein story updated with twenty-first century biotechnology.  Notwithstanding rogue actors or the rise of biotechnology-empowered biohackers, several factors work to hold scientists with suspect designs in check.  First, no one really works alone as funding and resources are contingent on some sort of institutional/professional community endorsement.  Professional scientists are subject to peer review at every stage of their careers and their institutions exert significant influence over the activities they are allowed to undertake.  For example, work with human subjects is overseen by an Institutional Review Board (IRB) to ensure all experiments have a solid scientific rationale and will be performed ethically and safely.  Investigators are required to detail foreseeable adverse events and develop proactive plans to prevent or mitigate them.  The IRB can point out omissions and require all issues are corrected to their satisfaction before any work may start.     

Why would a proposal to construct humanzees likely not pass muster with IRB or institutional animal care and use committees?  An unholy combination of too many impossible-to-answer questions linked with too many foreseeable, ugly consequences.  Start with an easy, but extremely tricky, question that would probably immediately bubble up in a reviewer’s mind; exactly how smart – how human – will these unfortunates be?  Will they warrant the full scope of protections and considerations such as respect for autonomy and notions of beneficence that are the core principles informing modern research with human subjects?  Keep in mind no one will really know how human-like humanzees will be until one is actually created and raised.  Imagine the public relations disaster and institutional liability that might result from greenlighting work based on presumptuous speculations.  If any humanzee creation proposals ever appear I predict they will not fare well with oversight committees.  For a creative and light-hearted take on how Victor Frankenstein might have managed IRB demands back in the day see the paper by Harrison and Gannon (2). 

Humanzee thinks

If my grandchildren ask whether humanzees could come here, I would reassure them it will never happen.  At this stage of their lives I would not go into the possibility groups elsewhere in the world might consider creating humanzees a great idea or that what I believe is a general scientific community consensus in our nation could change.  For the moment, creating a walking, perhaps talking, humanzee is beyond our capabilities.  The real test will come in the fast-arriving future when we can perform a modern version of the Frankenstein story.

It can’t happen here, can it?  Not now.  

(1) David P. Barash.   It’s Time to Make Human-Chimp Hybrids.  Nautilus, 8 March 2018.

(2) Gary Harrison and William L. Gannon.   Victor Frankenstein’s Institutional Review Board Proposal, 1790.  Science and Engineering Ethics 21(5):1139-1157.


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