Hello Dolly.

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Science That Makes Us Squirm

Faye Flam is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a staff writer for Science magazine and a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and she is the author of “The Score: How the Quest for Sex Has Shaped the Modern Man.”
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Science has a way of making people uncomfortable. Sometimes that’s because it seems likely to produce agents of harm; think of nuclear weapons research. Sometimes, though, for reasons less obvious, it just feels weird.

That’s what happened nearly 20 years ago when scientists cloned a sheep named Dolly, and again last week when word got out that a group of biologists held a closed meeting at Harvard to talk about using laboratory chemicals to create a complete set of human DNA – a human genome. Both ideas freaked people out because they called into question the imagined boundaries between the living and the non-living, the natural and the artificial.

Critics questioned what should be done with a set of artificial human DNA, and even broached the notion that someone might try to recreate Einstein. Similar concerns came up after Dolly.

The ethical issues surrounding synthetic human DNA are similar to those raised by cloning. The cloned sheep wasn’t made of artificial parts but violated what many people were taught about the facts of life, since it came from an udder cell instead of the union of egg and sperm.

Congressional hearings were held, new laws debated to rein in the brave new world. The famed medical ethicist Art Caplan, then at the University of Pennsylvania, had it right when he said the concerns should be focused not on cloning itself but on the safety of the clones. Would cloning introduce unintended health problems? Would cloned people be subject to prejudice? What kinds of expectations might a parent load on the shoulders of a child who was her clone? Or cloned from Einstein?

Ultimately, no human clones were produced, but scientists did use cloning on dishes of human cells for medical research. The objections there were primarily religious. The medical research offended those who believe a fertilized egg is equivalent to a human being, and that cells capable of becoming a new human being were sacred or had rights.

Cloning violated some people’s spiritual and intuitive feelings about life by showing that all sorts of ordinary cells can be coaxed into starting a new being. The kind of synthetic biology in the news now goes a step further, showing that a living thing can be produced from parts of dead organisms and some laboratory chemicals. It’s being done now in bacteria.

In 2010, the biologist Craig Venter and his colleagues announced that they’d created a synthetic version of the DNA for a bacteria called M. mycoides. They inserted it into dead bacteria of another species, emptied of their own natural DNA. The synthetic DNA “booted up” as Venter put it, and the bugs came to life. Earlier this year, a Venter team created a new bug by taking away genes, ending up with a life form that requires fewer genes than anything known to nature.

The appeal is that by tinkering with life, we’ll better understand how it works, said Rob Carlson, a biologist specializing in synthetic DNA and director of the Seattle-based company Bioeconomy Capital. The same goes for human DNA – there’s a lot we don’t know about it that might be learned from creating some in the lab.

There’s no reason, he said, for people to be frightened, outraged or creeped out.

He said that the public’s fears of synthetic life owe something to Mary Shelly’s 1818 novel "Frankenstein." He recently re-read the book and discovered that the horror is in what goes unsaid. There’s a sentence about Dr. Frankenstein at work, then a space, then the monster comes alive. “All our concerns about science and Frankenstein go back to the space between those two sentences,” Dr. Carlson said.

When "Frankenstein" was written, scientists accepted a theory called vitalism, which posited that living things and the chemicals that comprise them were infused with a life force. The idea died as a scientific theory in 1828, when chemist Friedrich Wohler accidentally produced urea – a component of mammal urine - by mixing ammonium chloride with silver cyanate. He excitedly wrote to his mentors that it was the first time anyone made this compound without the use of a kidney. Other chemists had doubts but eventually came around to the idea that molecules were just molecules, even the ones that make up our bodies.

And yet, vitalism survives in people’s intuitive view of the world. There seems to be something special about life. Those scientists who breach the life-chemistry border are often accused of playing God.

So it does make sense to probe the ethical considerations ahead of time. A few years ago, scientists synthesized a polio virus, for use in testing vaccines. The project provoked questions about whether the risks were worth the potential benefits. The organizer of last week’s closed meeting, Harvard biologist George Church, has described many futuristic applications of synthetic DNA in his book, "Regenesis." He proposes bringing back extinct animals, with the presumed hope that whatever went wrong the first time wouldn’t happen again.

He also wrote that it might be possible to bring a Neanderthal back from 40,000 years of extinction. Would a Neanderthal appreciate being created? Would he or she long for other Neanderthals?

We need to talk.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Faye Flam at fflam1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net