Stirring the Genetic Pot, Part II

“In what terms should we think of these beings, nonhuman yet possessing so very many human-like characteristics? How should we treat them?”

― Jane Goodall

Of course Jane was speaking about the apes, who so closely resemble humans in many ways. But I want to apply her words to another creature.

Back on Sept. 28th I wrote the post, “Stirring the Genetic Pot”, about the boy born last April who, through genetic manipulation, has the chromosones of his father and – not one, but two – mothers, a child with the DNA of three parents, a cocktail he will pass down to his descendants. In that post, I noted the genetic similarities between we humans and a list of other mammals closely related to us, and wondered if someday science fiction – ala the “X-Men” –  might some day become science fact, an admixture of humans with animal characteristics or vice versa.

Well, it has happened. I’d say that was kind of prophetic on my part, but it seems I wasn’t, I was only ignorant of what was already happening. 

Seems it was first reported back in June of last year that scientists at the University of California, Davis, were going to try to grow human organs inside pigs, which can then be transplanted into humans to provide a solution to the shortage of organs available for transplant. The scientists planned to inject human stem cells that can develop into any tissue type (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/jun/06/human-pig-embryos-qa-chimeras-transplant-organs-scientists?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Email).

And yesterday it was announced that science has succeded. You can read the full story (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jan/26/first-human-pig-chimera-created-in-milestone-study?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Email) but the gist of it is that this “marks the first time that embryos combining two large, distantly-related species have been produced. The creation of this hybrid is a so-called chimera – named after the cross-species beast of Greek mythology”. 

The chimera wasn’t allowed to reach full gestation, the fetus was removed prior to birth, but Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, who led the work on the part-pig, part-human embryos at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, acknowledges, “The idea of having an animal being born composing of human cells creates some feelings that need to be addressed.” Professor Daniel Garry, a cardiologist and head of a different chimera project at the University of Minnesota, echoes Belmonte: “This is a significant advance that raises opportunities and ethical questions as well.”

Ethical questions? I would imagine so.

Garry says that chimera research “[has] prompted a range of troubling questions, including whether the progeny would look more human or more pig, [and] what would happen if a chimera had a human thought…resulting in a mostly-human, slightly-pig offspring…We didn’t see any human cells in the brain region, but we cannot exclude the possibility that they may have gone to the brain.”

“These more fantastical possibilities are not a problem in reality,” he assures us, they can probably create safeguards to prevent them in future experiments.

Safeguards? I would hope so. 

But as the science-fictional Dr. Frankenstein had a mis-hap in his creation, and as science-fact is now mirroring science-fiction, accidents are bound to happen sooner or later. A human in a pig’s body, or a pig that thinks like a human? Shall we – should we – assign it a soul, in the religious sense? As per the Jane Goodall quote above, “How should we treat them?”

And all this reminds me of the ancient Greco-Egyptian god, Anubis (Anpu), usually depicted as a man with a canine head, that some believers believe really existed in the form of Alien visitors.

That’s wacko.

Maybe.

– Bill

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