This already sounds like a good idea…
A innovator in synthetic biology, George Church is a master in his field. His goal is to create synthetic DNA and organisms in the laboratory. His new book “Regenisis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves” is actually a great read. In fact you may already be familiar with his other work which he helped initiate the Human Genome Project.
The website Spiegel.de recently sat down with this mad scientist to hash out one of his ideas. “Bringing the Neanderthal back to life”. I like the sound of this already.
There are a lot of things that we can bring back from the dead that I would like to see before Neanderthals and would be potentially easier. For example, Bruce Lee, Einstein, Aaron Swartz. Or perhaps we could just make more of because we don’t have enough of them like maybe another Justin Bieber or Paris Hilton. I’m pretty sure every female teenager past puberty would love to have Justin Bieber incubating inside them. What I’m more afraid of than a cloned Neanderthal is the fact that there are people out there crazy enough to say yes. I’m sure Octomom’s Oven is all pre-heated and ready to go.
Here is the article from Spiegel:
SPIEGEL: Mr. Church, you predict that it will soon be possible to clone Neanderthals. What do you mean by “soon”? Will you witness the birth of a Neanderthal baby in your lifetime?
Church: That depends on a hell of a lot of things, but I think so. The reason I would consider it a possibility is that a bunch of technologies are developing faster than ever before. In particular, reading and writing DNA is now about a million times faster than seven or eight years ago. Another technology that the de-extinction of a Neanderthal would require is human cloning. We can clone all kinds of mammals, so it’s very likely that we could clone a human. Why shouldn’t we be able to do so?
SPIEGEL: Perhaps because it is banned?
Church: That may be true in Germany, but it’s not banned all over the world. And laws can change, by the way.
SPIEGEL: Would cloning a Neanderthal be a desirable thing to do?
Church: Well, that’s another thing. I tend to decide on what is desirable based on societal consensus. My role is to determine what’s technologically feasible. All I can do is reduce the risk and increase the benefits.
SPIEGEL: So let’s talk about possible benefits of a Neanderthal in this world.
Church: Well, Neanderthals might think differently than we do. We know that they had a larger cranial size. They could even be more intelligent than us. When the time comes to deal with an epidemic or getting off the planet or whatever, it’s conceivable that their way of thinking could be beneficial.
SPIEGEL: How do we have to imagine this: You raise Neanderthals in a lab, ask them to solve problems and thereby study how they think?
Church: No, you would certainly have to create a cohort, so they would have some sense of identity. They could maybe even create a new neo-Neanderthal culture and become a political force.
Smarter maybe, but damn they ugly. I thought we had already tried neanderthals as a political force during the Bush era. Neanderthals in politics reminds me of when Hockey players give interviews outside of the game and they sound like monotone bored morons. I’m pretty sure some of our current members of society have already given Neanderthal culture a shot and we know how that turned out. I’m sure you know one right now.
SPIEGEL: Wouldn’t it be ethically problematic to create a Neanderthal just for the sake of scientific curiosity?.
Church: Well, curiosity may be part of it, but it’s not the most important driving force. The main goal is to increase diversity. The one thing that is bad for society is low diversity. This is true for culture or evolution, for species and also for whole societies. If you become a monoculture, you are at great risk of perishing. Therefore the recreation of Neanderthals would be mainly a question of societal risk avoidance.
SPIEGEL: Setting aside all ethical doubts, do you believe it is technically possible to reproduce the Neanderthal?
Church: The first thing you have to do is to sequence the Neanderthal genome, and that has actually been done. The next step would be to chop this genome up into, say, 10,000 chunks and then synthesize these. Finally, you would introduce these chunks into a human stem cell. If we do that often enough, then we would generate a stem cell line that would get closer and closer to the corresponding sequence of the Neanderthal. We developed the semi-automated procedure required to do that in my lab. Finally, we assemble all the chunks in a human stem cell, which would enable you to finally create a Neanderthal clone.
SPIEGEL: And the surrogates would be human, right? In your book you write that an “extremely adventurous female human” could serve as the surrogate mother.
Church: Yes. However, the prerequisite would, of course, be that human cloning is acceptable to society.
SPIEGEL: Could you also stop the procedure halfway through and build a 50-percent Neanderthal using this technology.
Church: You could and you might. It could even be that you want just a few mutations from the Neanderthal genome. Suppose you were too realize: Wow, these five mutations might change the neuronal pathways, the skull size, a few key things. They could give us what we want in terms of neural diversity. I doubt that we are going to particularly care about their facial morphology, though (laughs).
SPIEGEL: Might it one day be possible to descend even deeper into evolutionary history and recreate even older ancestors like Australopithecus or Homo erectus?
Church: Well, you have got a shot at anything where you have the DNA. The limit for finding DNA fragments is probably around a million years.
SPIEGEL: So we won’t be seeing the return of the caveman or dinosaurs?
Church: Probably not. But even if you don’t have the DNA, you can still make something that looks like it. For example, if you wanted to make a dinosaur, you would first consider the ostrich, one of its closest living relatives. You would take an ostrich, which is a large bird, and you would ask: “What’s the difference between birds and dinosaurs? How did the birds lose their hands?” And you would try to identify the mutations and try to back engineer the dinosaur. I think this will be feasible.
SPIEGEL: Is it also conceivable to create lifeforms that never existed before? What about, for example, rabbits with wings?
Church: So that’s a further possibility. However, things have to be plausible from an engineering standpoint. There is a bunch of things in birds that make flying possible, not just the wings. They have very lightweight bones, feathers, strong breast muscles, and the list goes on.
For now if I want to watch Neanderthals I’ll just watch sports net.