The Road to Dolly, and the Path Ahead

By Gina Kolata

Morrow 276pp $23


Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World

By Lee M. Silver

Avon 317pp $25

In 1995, two Welsh mountain lambs were born at an obscure research institute in Scotland. It was a historic event because the two ewes in question, Megan and Morag, were clones--identical twins produced by inserting nuclei from one developing embryo into sheep eggs stripped of their genes. The feat smashed through what was considered a fundamental barrier of nature. Scientific dogma had held that only unspecialized cells from embryos--those that still have the ability to develop into any organ of the body--could be used to create a clone. But Megan and Morag sprang from cells that had already begun to specialize. As a result, no theoretical hurdles stood in the way of cloning an adult animal--or human.

And yet the response to the two lambs and their creator, Ian Wilmut, was deafening silence. At The New York Times, "we were oblivious to the research," admits Times science writer Gina Kolata in her perceptive new book, Clone: The Road to Dolly, and the Path Ahead. Few scientists or ethicists took notice, either. As far as most of science was concerned, the cloning of adults was still the stuff of fiction.

That's why the world reacted with amazement and shock a year later when Wilmut did clone an adult sheep--the famous Dolly. "Most of us thought it could never happen," recalls Princeton University biologist Lee M. Silver in his own provocative book, Remaking Eden. "How wrong we were."

So why did Wilmut's "magnificent and chilling experiment," as Kolata describes it, come as an utter--and, to many, horrible--surprise? The answer, Kolata argues persuasively, lies in the intertwined histories of cloning research and the scientific-ethics movement.

Kolata begins with a whole notebook's worth of reactions to human cloning. Sample: Big deal, shrugs writer Joyce Carol Oates, who adds: "Most people don't have any individuality anyway." But the guts of the book is a fascinating, vivid history of embryology and cloning, an account that helps explain why Dolly has triggered so much anxiety and fear.

Along the way, we get an illuminating look at how science is really carried out--and we meet such giants as Nobel Prize winner Hans Spemann. In the first few years of the 20th century, Spemann used a baby's hair to split hundreds of salamander embryos in two, creating not only twins but also creatures with two heads and two egos. By 1938, he had proposed "a fantastical experiment"--the cloning of an adult cell.

By 1952, science had taken the next step along that path. Attempting what one reviewer of grant applications called "a harebrained scheme with little chance of success," American Thomas J. King succeeded in transferring the nucleus from a frog embryo into an egg cell from which he had removed the nucleus. The result: a tadpole cloned from the embryo. "It was chubby and plump, a right jolly old tad/And we were to it--both Mother and Dad..." King recounted in giddy verse.

Cloning an adult suddenly seemed possible. And as Kolata recounts, the idea inspired none of the horror in the '50s and '60s that it does today. But that's when the story takes some unexpected twists. One key event is the emergence of the field of bioethics. Trying to gain attention and respect, pioneer Willard Gaylin "thought cloning could be an issue that could put [his new bioethics center] on the map," Kolata explains. So he wrote a landmark 1972 article decrying the "awful knowledge to make exact copies of human beings."

Cloning also suffered a major scientific blow. In 1979, a budding superstar named Karl Illmensee showed an amazed world three adult mice he claimed to have cloned from embryo cells. It was front-page news. But no one could duplicate his work. Fraud was alleged, though never proved, and the whole field was discredited. Grant money evaporated as top scientists moved on to the next fad.

Enter a new cast of characters, working in the backwaters of science. The most prominent was a mysterious Dane, Steen Willadsen, "a man who seemed to spring up out of nowhere, ready to do the impossible," Kolata writes. Willadsen's credo: "The role of the scientist is to break the laws of nature." Laboring in a little-known British lab, disobeying the rule of modern science that researchers must publish or perish, Willadsen did just what he had advocated. He created sheep-cow chimeras, for instance, even roasting one for a party in 1985. "It was not very tasty, but that was because the sheep part of it was too old," he reported. And more than a decade before Dolly, he cloned lambs from embryo cells that had already begun to specialize. But he did not publish the news of his feat.

Over drinks in a bar in 1986, Ian Wilmut heard of Willadsen's achievement. Wilmut figured it was the solution to his own problem. A scientist at Scotland's Roslin Institute and "one of the most unlikely heroes of the cloning saga," writes Kolata, he was trying to genetically engineer cows so they would make drugs or other substances in their milk. But he was not able to get new genes into embryo cells, which could then have been cloned. Cloning later-stage or adult cells would thus solve the problem, since those cells could be genetically engineered.

Funded by a struggling company, Wilmut and colleague Keith Campbell doggedly leaped over the scientific hurdles in their path. No one noticed. Even the watershed birth of Megan and Morag was ignored "because it was outside of the mainstream and it took place not at an Ivy League university with an aggressive public-relations staff but at a tiny rural research institute where a guard dog named Buster roamed the grounds at night," Kolata explains. And it was this "atmosphere of mostly blind indifference to their work that gave Wilmut and Campbell the courage to try to clone an adult sheep," she adds. If today's concerns had been raised then, "it is possible that history would have taken a different path."

Kolata never does pass judgment on the merits and eventual legacy of cloning. But the impression she leaves in this compelling book is that cloning is inevitable and that its consequences are so far-reaching they will "alter our very notion of what it means to be human." Or as biologist Silver puts it: "For better and worse, a new age is upon us."

Just as scientists inexorably marched toward Dolly with little thought of the consequences, Silver argues, few researchers today grasp what cloning will mean. Indeed, he writes, "most practicing scientists and physicians have been loath to speculate about where it may all lead."

So in Remaking Eden, which is an ideal complement to Kolata's book, Silver leaps into the fray himself. He foresees everything from children created by the mingled genes of two "mothers" to parents deciding which embryos to bring to term on the basis of computer simulations of prospective children. And when "the techniques of cloning and genetic engineering are combined," Silver writes, "the human species will gain control over its own destiny," wiping out disease and creating people with special abilities.

Eventually, Silver predicts, genetically enhanced people and "natural" humans will be so different that they will become "entirely separate species with no ability to cross-breed, and with as much romantic interest in each other as a current human would have for a chimpanzee."

Impossible, most scientists would say. But as physicist Freeman Dyson notes in Silver's book: "The human species has a deeply ingrained tendency to prove the experts wrong." Remember, creating Dolly was "impossible," too.

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