21 April, 2004

in mouse world, no dad needed...

Scientists have created mice from two genetic mothers and no dad. This isn't possible (yet) with humans for both technical and ethical reasons. This is supposed to come out in the April 22 issue of Nature.

It may seem like a "why'd they do that?" sort of experiment, but it touches on my field of molecular biology (epigenetics) and adds a lot to a very important topic. In mammals, the set of genes inherited from one's father is treated differently than the set of genes inherited from one's mother. Some genes are marked differently so that long after fertilization in an adult animal, the cells "know" which of the two copies of a particular gene came from dad, and which came from mom. It normally isn't possible just to add any two halves of a genome together and expect that an animal will develop - there's something special and (we thought) necessary about the complementarity of having half of a genome from dad, and the other half from mom. It's quite amazing the scientists only had to tweak two genes in order to get it to work without this complementarity. Of course, my opinion of the research is subject to modification pending my reading of the actual journal article.

While I think it's exciting work, I am worried about the ethical implications. The scientists who did this had no intentions of doing this in humans, but that was the same story with Dolly, the cloned sheep.

The cloning frenzy that ensued led to the attempts of some groups including one associated with the Raelians and another with fertility doctor Panos Zavos to clone humans, despite warnings from experts in the field that cloned mammals have severe developmental problems.

The Raelians made a series of claims that they've succeeded despite having no track record of cloning expertise and no evidence of their "success." We haven't heard from Panos Zavos in a while, but let's hope he didn't actually make the attempt, which according to the predictions of the world's animal cloning experts, would have yielded many sick babies.

Brave new world, or scary, scary one?

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