Playing Frankenstein?

By Eric Seymour

If you've been watching TV, reading the newspapers, or even listening to the radio recently, it's a good bet you've heard about cloning at least once. This is the latest media craze which is bringing attention to the scientific community. I suppose by commenting on the whole situation, I am only adding to this media blitz, but I have yet to see much solid scientific commentary on the subject. Since I am a Chemistry major and scientifically inclined in general, I thought I'd provide some perspective on this issue.

This hype started several weeks ago when researchers announced the successful cloning of a sheep, using a body cell of an adult sheep. This was followed last week by the announcement of a similar breakthrough by cloning the embryo of a rhesus monkey. (This added to the discussion, as the media was quick to point out that monkeys are very similar to humans.) I even saw a piece in the evening news about scientists transplanting the brain of a quail into a chick, so that the chick bobbed its head like a quail.

The reaction to all this has been like a science fiction movie. The attention has immediately turned to the possiblity of cloning humans. Every scientist who has commented has expressed that cloning of humans will never be conducted. Our President has even stepped in (Slick Willy to the rescue!) and promised to cut off all funding for human cloning research.

So, what's the point here? If we won't clone humans, why are we cloning sheep and monkeys? And would cloning humans really be the horror people are expressing it to be? The outlook is much brighter than people tend to paint it.

First of all, if a human were cloned, this would be in no way similar to what it is made out to be in science fiction. In an episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" that I saw recently, a character was effectively cloned by an accident in beaming up to the Enterprise. As could be expected, this created all kinds of problems in identity and relationships.

But if a human were really cloned, it would be more like having a twin 20, 30, or 40 years younger than you. The clone would have to go through all the natural human developmental steps, and would be as different a person as adult twins are, because of environmental factors. So you can stop worrying about waking up someday to a world full of Dennis Rodman clones!

What would be some ethical considerations? Well, it would be altogether possible that some eccentric people would rather raise a clone of themselves than a naturally conceived child. But is that wrong? No, just really strange, and very narcissistic. If anything, were this to become a fad, it could decrease our population's genetic diversity, making humans as a whole more susceptible to mass epidemic, among other ill effects.

A legal question could be raised here, though. Very intelligent, athletic, or attractive people might be in danger of having their genetic material "stolen" (perhaps by an unscrupulous medical practitioner taking a blood sample), and used without their permission to create clones. We already protect intellectual property (patents, copyrights). We probably will have to protect genetic property.

Finally, if human cloning will not be happening anyway, why are scientists doing this research? Eventually, it may be possible to clone replacement body parts from a person's own cells--this would prevent rejection that is common with transplants. Also, in research, if gentically identical animals could be used, fewer of them would be required to obtain accurate results. And that is something that both the scientific and the animal rights community should agree would be a worthy goal.

Mike Trotzke

Sean Frick

Eric Seymour