Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Clone frontier

ANDi (inserted DNA spelled backwards) is the first rhesus monkey cloned by embryo splitting

Dawn of a new age

A new press release from the US Federal Food and Drug Administration published yesterday is a big sign that the world of genetic research with all of its potential is not going away. On the contrary, this is likely an important salvo across the bow of public consciousness that this topic- along with all the issues it brings- can not be ignored or set aside for another time.

Whether we like it or not, the exploration of the gene continues to move forward with increasing significance and real world impact. According to the press release “after years of detailed study and analysis, the Food and Drug Administration has concluded that meat and milk from clones of cattle, swine, and goats, and the offspring of clones from any species traditionally consumed as food, are as safe to eat as food from conventionally bred animals.” This is probably only the beginning of a whole new category of evaluations and recommendations as the FDA struggles to keep up with the plethora of scientific advances and how they should be assimilated into the tapestry of everyday industry, consumption, and safety.

These findings agree with the National Academy of Sciences 2002 conclusions and were also examined by a peered reviewed group of independent scientific experts in cloning and animal health. In addition, this decision opens the doors for lifting the 2001 voluntary moratorium by US producers and the US Department of Agriculture is already convening meetings with the industry to “discuss efforts to provide a smooth and orderly market transition…”

If the related world of genetically modified agricultural produce is any indication, this news will prove a hot bed for public debate, discussion, and more. It’s an area of human endeavor that deserves major discussion as it forces us to face a whole spectrum of ethical, philosophical, and scientific considerations we can no longer ignore or set aside for later.

Like it or not, the future is here. If life is a series of changes- and this may prove seismic- then human civilization is on a threshold of a whole new era. Though, this technology is still pretty much in its pre-infancy, enough is known to make it very hard to step back and reverse its course. Having an informed idea of where science is with respect to cloning technology may serve to lessen some of the concern and provide ground for reasoned discussion as we attempt to navigate a world that is familiar and alien at the same time.

In a way, cloning is familiar because humans have been manipulating the genetic code of animals and plants for centuries attempting to mold nature towards more human friendly and accessible forms. The manipulation and creation of organisms through genetic engineering and cloning is a true extension of agriculture and engineering and reflects primordial human qualities.

Sam Harris wrote an interesting article “Mother Nature is Not Our friend” where he discussed the fact that there is no obvious special favor given to humans or any species for that matter regarding the “bounty” of nature and there is really no special meaning in our present status as Homo sapiens. He writes “Life is a continuous flux. Our nonhuman ancestors bred, generation after generation, and incrementally begat what we now deem to be the species homo sapiens- ourselves. There is nothing about our ancestral line or about our current biology that dictates how we will evolve in the future. Nothing in the natural order demands that our descendants resemble us in any particular way. Very likely, they will not resemble us. We will almost certainly transform ourselves, likely beyond recognition, in the generations to come.” This is pretty heady stuff, but if you think about it, very true.

Thirty years ago Apple and Microsoft were nascent concepts in the minds of some teenagers working out of a garage in a world where the dial telephone, radio, and three channels on the television served as bastions of human communication. Today, other teenagers have belt sized communication devices that provide instant access to hundreds of informational inputs and outputs the flow of which they deftly handle with a precision that would have seemed alien those 30 years ago. If you take a step back, one can almost see the fusion of man and machine already in the making.

The manipulation of genetic codes and whole organisms that is the frontier of genetic science seems to be a part of this type of expansion; where change paradoxically provides a foundation in some way for the survival of life- whatever the form. As Harris notes “Considering humanity as a whole, there is nothing about natural selection that suggests our optimal design…we are acquiring the tools that will enable us to attempt our own optimization. Many people think this project is fraught with risk. But is it riskier thanm doing nothing? There may be current threats to civilization that we cannot even perceive, much less resolve at our current level of intelligence. Could any rational strategy be more dangerous than following the whims of nature? This is not to say that our growing capacity to meddle with the human genome couldn’t present some moments of Faustian over-reach. But our fears on this front must be tempered by a sober understanding of how we got here.”

The machinations of humanities probing mind are now taking us beyond the constraints of our own biological evolution. Though fraught with risk and danger, a new world of genetic science with its potential for change, may open the doors to something wondrous.

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