Doppelganger

There are a few definitions of a doppelganger. I choose the one that defines it as a living person’s double, an unrelated twin. In some countries, the doppelganger is a bearer of bad news or an omen of death.

doppelganger

Photo Credit: c2k2e via Compfight cc

I remember going to a leadership conference in Georgia with Allan,  a former BSM director from ETBU. We were having lunch with other attendees and striking up a conversation with the waitress. Allan remarked how she looked exactly like one of our ETBU students and how it would be great to get them together. At that statement, the waitress got a horrified look on her face. It turns out that in her culture, they believe everyone has a double in the world, and if you meet your double, one of you will die. End of witnessing opportunity…

If this omen of death belief were more widespread, then maybe the topic of cloning would be less alluring. Making your own doppelganger would have dire consequences.

Many people are still enamored with making human clones. At the beginning of the 21st century, several groups claimed to have successfully cloned  a human baby, but there was never any proof to their claims. Cloning of humans was banned by the United Nations, but not all countries follow the resolution. Most agree on banning reproductive cloning, but some want to continue human therapeutic cloning efforts. Last year was a giant step forward in human therapeutic cloning science (see Attack of the Clones blog), and some labs continue to try to reproductively clone humans. It is still not possible to clone a human with current technology.

We know there are natural clones. We call them identical twins. An egg is fertilized with a sperm and the resulting zygote, for some reason, splits in two and develops into two people. Clones who share the exact DNA with each other. So when we attempt to clone ourselves, we want to replicate that process. Just take our DNA and make another person just like us.

twins with flower

Photo Credit: Len Radin via Compfight cc

The problem is that we are not just DNA. There is more to making a human than genetics. For instance, almost all of the cell contents come from the egg. Not just half the DNA, but all the organelles and cell proteins too. To clone ourselves, we need the exact cell contents that were in our zygote. That means our mother’s egg (the exact one we came from). And that’s weird on several levels.

Also, just the act of fertilization starts a timer for the genetics. Genes turn on and off at the proper timing to get development to work right. With cloning, we have to trick the cell into developing and it doesn’t work right 98% of the time. And the of the times that work, 80% are not normal.

Many of the abnormalities resemble genomic imprinting disorders. This happens when the DNA from mom and the DNA from dad don’t work right together. In most genes, having two copies working is perfectly fine, however in a small percentage, one set of genes needs to be turned off. This happens with conception, but not with nuclear cloning. The imprinted genes are not programmed properly in the clone leading to abnormalities. Genomic imprinting fits in the realm of epigenetics.

What about the clones with genetic defects? They will have high medical costs. Currently imprinting disorders that cause mental or physical abnormalities carry medical costs of several million dollars over the lifetime of the child. Who will cover that cost? The cloning laboratory? Insurance companies? Taxpayers?

Even with all the difficulties, scientists are still attempting to clone, and probably will succeed someday. So, what about the clone itself?

  • Will it be a zombie like person with only animal instincts to drive it?
  • Will it be able to think and learn like a human?
  • Will it have constitutional rights and protection?
  • Will it have a Spirit?

Remember that we have clones walking among us. Those identical twins. Do they have rights and thoughts and ambition and Spirits?

Of course they do.

So if we can manipulate DNA and produce a clone, we won’t nullify the humanity of the clone.

And does that mean that the Spirit lies within the genetics of humans?

Humans have a Spirit. Humans are genetic creatures. Therefore, Spirit and genetics have to be connected somehow. Maybe it is epi-epigenetics…

Makes my head hurt…it would be much easier to just avoid my doppelganger completely.

dsb

 

That’s Life…what’s life?

Well, I’ve decided that I may not be particularly fond of blogging…for two reasons. First, I tend to have a lot more to say as I run out of space (so sequels may be in order), and second, I tend to have more topics invade my brain as I’m trying to finish the thoughts of the current blog. This is a prior invasion…

The joke goes: Well, that’s Life… what’s Life?… its a cereal…really, how much does it cost?… $2.50…I only have $2.00…well, that’s Life. ba dum tsh.

This blog is about life.  You see, I am a biologist by training. By definition I am one who studies life. But it is hard to actually define life.

Merriam-Webster defines Life as  :the ability to grow, change, etc., that separates plants and animals from things like water or rocks

Now I know that is a definition, but it is really about characteristics of life. We have an easy time telling life from non-life. Does it grow, change, move or just sit there like a rock?

Even children and animals can recognize life, they see a stick on the ground then, whoop! it moves so it could be a snake…

We see the characteristics and know, this is life, but what makes something change from non-life to life? What is the essence of life?

You can’t just add electricity (sorry Dr. Frankenstein…), but there is a type of electricity involved with life processes. Some form of DNA/RNA is present in life as we know it. You have to have oxygen, but not all life needs it. And with the organisms that need it, too much harms life. Water is also a necessity, but again too much is a bad thing. It’s not a simple recipe.

Scientists have 3 rules of life, called the cell theory.

  1. The cell is the most basic unit of life.
  2. All living organisms are composed of one or more cells.
  3. All cells arise from pre-existing, living cells.

But these are not the essence of life. Scientists don’t know how to take a set of non-living chemicals and put them into a cell (the basic unit of life) and make it come alive. Even the right chemical balance taken out of the cell membrane becomes “dead”.

heart

Photo Credit: Curious Expeditions via Compfight cc

And there is a complex hierarchy of life or different levels of life. By that I mean that we are alive as organisms (Level 1). If our brains cease to function then we die. However, our organs can remain alive if donated to another body (Level 2). We are not alive, but part of us is.

And if you break the organ down into its cells, then the organ is dead, but the cells can be kept alive (Level 3).

Then if the cells are tweaked properly, they can be grown into another organ. Or the cells can be put into a prepared egg and become another organism (theoretically at least, see last week’s blog).

My kidney is not me, but it is a part of me. If I lose a kidney, I don’t cease to exist, but how many parts can I lose before I am no longer me? And some parts seem to define me or my image of me more that other parts.

And when did I begin? Does life begin at birth? Well, a level of life might begin there or another level after we reach a certain age of independence. That was 18 back in the day, but now seems to be more like 34…

Of course another level is when the egg and the sperm unite…conception begins that process of life.

But in reality we don’t create life at conception. Cells come from pre-existing cells, or life comes from pre-existing life.

Once life began at…well, the beginning, it has not stopped. It takes a living cell to make another living cell. Mama’s egg was alive before conception (as was Daddy’s sperm).

We are part of a great continuum of life. Part of a journey. Then when do I cease to be me? …cease to exist? (Ah…add a dash of sequel dust here…)

dsb

Attack of the Clones

One of the biggest intersections of faith and science comes when we talk about genetics.  Genetics involves the study of DNA, and DNA is the molecule that forms the basis of life as we know it.  When scientists are messing with DNA, it gets people’s attention. They add and delete and manipulate to “create” better organisms and products.

Is that using scientific knowledge to benefit mankind or just playing God?

When a plant or animal has its DNA manipulated, we call it genetic modification.  A genetically modified organism (GMO) has been enhanced in some way to fight disease, to increase nutrients, to grow faster, or to live longer. Many people do not want GMOs to be in the marketplace.  They feel like it’s some kind of “Frankenfruit” if it had its genes manipulated.  Maybe the genes will transfer from our hamburger into us. Or somehow we will produce some type of “killer tomatoes” and they will attack us (…cue cultic B movie spoof from the ‘80s).

Since we really don’t understand DNA, it becomes mysterious (or terrifying) to have it altered.

Maybe it’s just when scientists are manipulating the DNA it becomes mysterious.  You see, farmers have been manipulating DNA for centuries. We call it selective breeding. We’ve altered our crops, our livestock and our pets using “natural” genetic modification. We get more disease resistance, more nutrients, faster growth, more domestic behavior, increased cuteness…but have we made better products or just swapped one set of problems for another?

Well, last year scientists made one of the biggest breakthroughs with DNA research.  They successfully completed a somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) with human DNA. With SCNT the DNA is removed from an egg cell and replaced with DNA from a skin cell. The resulting cell is tricked into growing as an embryo.

In “therapeutic cloning”, the embryo is harvested early to collect the stem cells which theoretically can become any tissue type for organ transplant or disease treatment. In “reproductive cloning” the embryo is implanted into a surrogate mother and allowed to develop into a complete animal.

A type of SCNT was used 17 years ago to clone the infamous sheep Dolly, the first mammal cloned by this method. Other embryo cell methods had worked before then, but this was the first to use skin cells. Since then they have cloned probably 18-20 different four legged mammals with this procedure.

It turns out to be very difficult to make a clone. You only get a few good embryos from hundreds of attempts. And most cloned animals have health problems that shorten their life span. Dolly died at only half the age of normal sheep.

The human clone was a therapeutic clone. The technique was perfected with monkey eggs.  More than a thousand monkey eggs were used before moving to humans. You see monkeys have not been reproductively cloned using SCNT. There is something different about monkey eggs verses other mammal eggs. It is much more difficult if not impossible to make a reproductive clone with monkeys and, in that respect,  humans.

So the issue is not about making a cloned human baby, although that may be somewhere down the road, it is about the ethics of using embryo derived cells for research. Has the science jumped ahead of our ethics?

  • Is a therapeutically cloned embryo still an embryo?
  • Does the situation change if the embryo could never become a baby?
  • Is there an ethical problem with using human eggs to make the clone?
  • Should we pay for the eggs to do this type of research?
  • Do we impose religious ethics on this type of research and if so, do we use Western religion or Eastern religion?

These and other questions will be asked as our ethics tries to keep up with the scientific techniques.

dsb