Saturday, February 20, 2010

Cloning Neanderthals

Neanderthal is a byword for backwardness, but this relative of ours, which disappeared only 25,000 or 30,000 years ago was clearly human. The Neanderthals had burial rites, buiilt fires, probably had language, made tools and even had a larger brain than homo sapiens. Now, according to an article in the journal Archeology, some scientists want to clone them.

According to George Church, a genetics professor from Harvard Medical School, Neanderthal cells could be significant in the discovery of treatments for largely human-specific diseases such as HIV or smallpox. He says that if they are different enough to modern humans, they may possess genetic immunity to these conditions. Also, differences in their biology could lead to new gene therapy or drug treatments.

A first draft of the Neanderthal genome was released a year ago, but it is likely to contain many errors. Creating an artificial genome is an even greater challenge, but if it can be done, is it ethical to recreate Neanderthals?

The bioethicists interviewed by Archeology were largely in favour of it. Bernard Rollin, a bioethicist at Colorado State University, has no serious ethical reservations, but warns that it all depends on how they are perceived by others. "I don't think it is fair to put people...into a circumstance where they are going to be mocked and possibly feared," he says. Lori Andrews, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, doesn't see any problem with cloning, but points out that the Neanderthal's legal rights would include the right not to be experimented on. Since experimentation is the main purpose of the exercise, this makes cloning useless.

James Noonan, a geneticist at Yale University, takes a dim view of cloning. "If your experiment succeeds and you generate a Neanderthal who talks, you have violated every ethical rule we have, and if your experiment fails...well. It's a lose-lose," he says.

On the other hand, Dr Church believes that it could be unethical not to clone them.

The Neanderthals' differently shaped brains might give them a different way of thinking that would be useful in problem-solving. They would also expand humanity's genetic diversity, helping protect our genus from future extinction. "Just saying 'no' is not necessarily the safest or most moral path," he says. "It is a very risky decision to do nothing."

John Hawks, a University of Wisconsin paleoanthropologist, says that he does not believe that it is ethical to recreate a Neanderthal, but also that it is inevitable that some people will ignore the ethics of the situation. "In the end," he says, "we are going to have a cloned Neanderthal, I'm just sure of it." ~Archaeology Vol 63 No. 2 Mar/Apr 2010

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