On Genes and Clones

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On Genes and Clones
On Genes and Clones

The most wonderful mystery of life may well be the means by which it created so much diversity from-so little physical matter . . .Yet life has divided into millions of species, the fundamental units, each playing a unique role in relation to the whole.

Edward O Wilson

Ah, but to die, and go we know not where;

To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;

This sensible warm motion to become

A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit

To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside

In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;

Shakespeare

Does it really have to happen that way as Shakespeare feared? But what would the world be willing to give to have in our midst again the Bard of Avon, whose fantastic brain had conceived Hamlet, Macbeth, whose far-sighted vision had plumbed the depths of life and whose hand had traced the 154 glorious sonnets.

Immortality’s allure has fascinated poets, scientists as well as philosophers, and has even coloured epics, myths and fables for ages. Today we appear to have within our grasp enough knowledge to turn fiction into fact. Ten decades of spectacular discoveries in biology have shown us that life can arise only from life, that the nucleus governs the cell through the molecular mechanism of the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and that the amount of DNA and its structure determine not only the nature of the species but also the characteristics of individuals.

The development of gene cloning, through recombinant DNA techniques and rapid DNA sequencing, has made it possible in recent years not only to discover and record how genes are put together but to manipulate the stuff of life itself—achievements which could not be imagined even a decade ago. Biologist are already cloning plants and even sheep! (The word clone is derived from Greek‘klon’ meaning twig.) A cutting can form an entire new plant if placed in the proper environment, usually a special nutrient broth such as coconut milk. The broth induces individual cells to ‘forget’ their specialised function and develop as embryos rather than as part of a root or stem.

For the first time in man’s history he is in a position to reserve a place in the future. Technology is now available to pursue indefinitely your genetic code, the blueprint for your unique physical and mental traits. The human gene pool may be altered in an irreversible manner by any of a variety of man-made catastrophes in the next few cen­turies. To save our human race, i.e. our species, human beings of a future date may ultimately need to recreate the people of today and give them another life in pioneering “the sperm and the ovum (which each carry half the code) contains the individual’s entire genetic code. A small cell sample scraped painlessly from the inside of the mouth and stored under proper conditions may someday in the distant future be able to yield an entire human being.

In preparation for such a day one zoologist had proposed a special project for individual preservation to be developed and administered by a foundation to be created exclusively for that purpose. Until the technology for reactivation exists, the genes entrusted to the care of such a special project will rest in a repository similar to a sperm bank, frozen either in cryoprotectant dimethysulphioxide (DMSO) or in a solution of ethyl alcohol, glycerol and DMSO. Accompanying each stored gene code would be an audio-taped or, better still, a video-taped life history of the individual. Those depositing their genes with the special project would be given the right to specify the conditions of future access.

Scientists now know that every gene is made up of some combin­ation of four bases—adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine—whose sequence and amount determine the nature of the organism. Gene synthesisers and protein sequencers, machines that can determine the composition and sequence of bases and then use the information to synthesise the same gene sequence, are already available at relatively low cost. Chemically synthesised DNA has been used to create functional genes and to produce specific mutant bacteria. What once took several months in the laboratory can now be accomplished in a single day.

Scientists are creating huge computer banks to store the vast accumulation of gene-sequencing data being developed in laboratories around the world. One laboratory in West Germany is exploring the possibility of totally sequencing 1 of the 46 human chromosomes, a task involving 500 million possible base sequences.

Another institute was planning even a few years ago to found a national nucleic acid sequence data bank. In the near future we may have in our computers, a complete analysis of the human genome and an index of every protein produced by each type of cell. And what are the plans for the distant future? Scientists are hopeful that they would be able to learn things about cell nuclei that will enable us to repair bodies, cure diseases, grow new organs or perhaps live forever through cloning.

Scientists, do realise that animal cells are not so easy to ‘re­program’. They know that it is possible to remove or destroy the nucleus of a fertilised egg, replace it with the nucleus of a cell taken from a donor of the same species and then obtain an individual, genetically identical to the donor. They have already succeeded in reconstructing a biological entity from the body cells of an adult mammal. (Dolly was cloned from a cell taken from the mammary gland of a six-year-old Finn Dorset sheep and an egg cell taken from a Scottish Blackface sheep. She was born to her Scottish Blackface surrogate mother on 5th July 1996). They are also speculating about trying out new techniques such as the obliteration of cell differentiation; the release of the genetic code for the purpose of creating a new life. They hope that in time we will be able to unlock the secrets of the cell and control life with a sure and competent hand. If they do succeed in realising their dreams people who trust their genetic codes to the care of the ‘special project’ mentioned earlier will be able to once again contribute their talents to humanity.

Any discussion about cloning often evokes fear of a loss of human diversity, individuality and freedom and a concomitant genetic generation of mankind. But cloning may one day be the saviour of a gene pool that is threatened by cataclysmic events.

Mutagenic and carcinogenic chemicals may pollute the environment. Unnatural forces of radiation may increase the mutation rate. Recessive genes may accumulate as medical technology permits those who would not otherwise have survived to reproduce. A nuclear war would mean genetic devastation. Inadvertently we may make more genetic changes in the next few centuries than have occurred naturally in the past few hundred thousand years.

Any ‘special project’ that would protect and store what would be the future’s most valuable natural resources today’s human gene pool would essentially enable us to put up human preserves against a time when otherwise the genetic cupboard would be bare. Pessimists and skeptics who fear that this planet may one day be inhabited by clones of Nero and Caligula, if genetic technology is allowed to develop unchecked, may take comfort in the fact that the mature generations of tomorrow may only choose to recreate people who today are either building our great technological societies, or laying the foundations of our scientific achievements or artistic triumphs.

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