"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, April 25, 2014

Genetic Sequencing–Bringing Back Grandpappy

We all know that designer babies are not far off.  Once the human genome was mapped, the die was cast; and human nature was in for some big, big surprises.

The thought of eliminating the luck of the draw – those persnickety genes from the deadbeat side of the family that somehow made their way into Baby Jason – is tempting indeed.  Why not take chance out of the equation entirely and go for a Brad Pitt-Einstein-Michael Jordan combo?  There is no doubt that gene catalogues will be as popular as today’s lists of baby names, and customers will be able to pick and choose from the very best that humanity has had to offer.

The problem comes with access.  It is easy to dig up Stéphane Mallarmé from Père Lachaise and scrape a few cells from his bones so that Baby Jason can have a future as a symbolist poet; but what about the great men of the past?  A few strands of Genghis Khan, for example, would help any competitive youngster; but his remains are nowhere to be found.

In any case there is a lot of money to be made from genetic sequencing, splicing, and cloning. Rising consumer demand will drive an entire industry of exhumers and the lawyers to represent the estates of the deceased. Interactive electronic baby catalogues which will facilitate genetic browsing will crowd the market. Interested parents will be able to have a complete visualized biography of Mallarmé to learn more about his personal life, tics, and peculiarities before they select him for his poetry alone.

The biggest market will come from living gene donors.  Professional athletes and movie stars make millions on endorsements for shoes, fashion, and shaving cream; so why not on their patented genetic material.  Tom Brady, Scarlett Johansson, and Oprah Winfrey can make untold millions more by hawking themselves.

Of course religious fundamentalists will howl that God’s creation is being tampered with.  Only He has the right to decide who’s who and what’s what; and any human attempt to intervene is prideful, sinful, and Satanic.  The conservative tide will ebb, however, when these devout Christians realize that there are bits and pieces of saints’ bones in  consecrated Catholic and Orthodox altars all over the world.  More importantly, who knows what scientists might find if they do some serious excavations in the Holy Land?

Genetic sequencing has other interesting possibilities as well.  Michael Crichton was on to something when he wrote Jurassic Park, for it was published long before anyone even imagined that recreating dinosaurs from bits of their femurs could actually happen.  Now, the reality of recreating creatures from the very distant past is coming closer to reality.  Scientists are on the way to reproducing Neanderthals – our closest ancestor.

Surprisingly as scientist author Svante Paabo writes in the New York Times (4.25.14), you may have met a Neanderthal without knowing it – suspecting it perhaps, but not knowing for sure:

These ancient genomes show that the Neanderthals were genetically very similar to us. In fact, for most of the genome, some people living today are closer to the Neanderthals than to other people. Comparing their genome with that of modern people, we identified a total of 31,389 genetic mutations that have come to be carried by all humans today. This relatively short list is, if you like, a “genetic recipe” for a modern human.

I have always suspected that there was something to this ‘throwback thing’.  I have been a member of a tony Washington gym for almost ten years, and a number of the Supreme Court solicitors, Judges of the DC Court of Appeals, Potomac land developers, and former White House advisors – when stripped of their K Street suits– are as hairy, bowlegged, and simian as any ape.  Which is perhaps why they have become so successful.  Neanderthals did not lead a pampered existence and had to fight for every scrap of meat, female company, and water rights. Some of these men, by the way, have decided to look less ‘natural’ and have had their chests and backs shaved.  While at first they are more Homo Sapiens-looking, the hair soon starts to sprout, and a weird five o’clock shadow starts to spread on both sides of their core.

This random selection, poker-style luck of the genetic draw, and pop-up Neanderthal look-alikes is not enough for scientists today; for they want to recreate the real thing:

Some scientists, including George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, have suggested that one should consider using the Neanderthal genome sequence to genetically engineer human stem cells to produce Neanderthal embryos that can then be implanted in a woman (or a female chimpanzee) to re-create Neanderthal individuals.

Talk about diversity! The ‘progressive’ Left will have a field day with this.

This Neanderthal research has very interesting implications. Svante Paabo writes:

I never met my paternal grandfather. He died of the Spanish flu in 1919 at the age of 30, before his children and grandchildren ever got to know him. He was a brilliant mathematician and, as a scientist myself, I feel curious about what he was like. I take consolation from the fact that he lives on in me; after all, a quarter of my genes come from him.

While Paabo ‘takes consolation from the fact that he lives on in me’, others may be more ambitious.  Why not bring Grandpappy back from the dead? Scrape a few bits off his bones, do some magic in the laboratory, find an appropriate surrogate mother, and in nine months, you will no longer have to guess what the old man was really like.

Of course maybe you don’t really want to know.  Back in Paabo’s grandfather’s day, long before today’s age of electronic surveillance, rumor and hearsay were the best clues to what a person was up to.  In my case, God only knows why my paternal grandfather had to leave Italy so quickly.  All we know is that he had to to take the first boat leaving the Port of Naples whatever its destination, took a ship to Argentina on August 2,1880, and somehow found his way to America five years later where he met and married my grandmother.

Rumor, hearsay, and innuendo suggest that in Italy he was a ne’er-do-well, miscreant, brigand, philanderer, and assassin; and my granduncles and distant cousins said that the old goombas back in Sorrento were happy to see him go.  I am happy that Guido Pantucci managed to spread his seed in the New World, but I have no desire whatsoever to see the old bugger come back to life.

I have no compunctions, reservations, or hesitations whatsoever about tinkering with human DNA.  Once the genie is out of the bottle, there’s no getting him back in; and once Dolly the Sheep, an exact replica of Martha the Sheep, was photographed munching grass in a pasture in Vermont, the race to engineer perfect children was on. We Americans are never satisfied with what is and feel that nothing is beyond our ingenuity and imagination.

Luckily we live in a free country and no one can force me to take in the new, recreated Grandpappy Guido.  However, we all will have to rethink Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous line from No Exit, “Hell is other people”, since that Hell may now include any number of unwanted visitors from the past.

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