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Cloning Neanderthals - Not Impossible, But Not Likely

posted 25 Jan 2013, 15:37 by Mpelembe   [ updated 25 Jan 2013, 15:38 ]

Can Neanderthals be cloned? Possibly, but not likely say experts.

NEW YORKNEW YORKUNITED STATES (JANUARY 25, 2013) (REUTERS) -  It's a theoretical discussion. Using science, can we bring back the Neanderthal, man's closest but extinct relative? Although one day it may be technically possible to clone a Neanderthal using DNA, scientist say it's not likely to happen for ethical reasons.

"Neanderthals are our closest extinct relatives. They diverged from us about a half million years ago. They lived in Europe for a great deal of time, from about 200,000 years ago to about 25,000 years ago," described Rob DeSalleCurator at the Sackler Institute of Comparative Genomics at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

The idea of cloning Neanderthals seeped into the media news cycle recently following aDer Spiegel interview with Geneticist George Church of the Harvard Medical School.

Church is a pioneer in synthetic biology and in the interview he discussed the technical challenges scientists would face if they tried to clone a Neanderthal, though neither he nor the Der Spiegel article, which was presented as a question and answer exchange, said he intended to do so.

The Der Spiegel interview spawned a series of sensational headlines from other news outlets such as "'Adventurous Female' Sought To Give Birth To Cloned Neanderthal".

In the Der Spiegel article and his recent book "Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves," Church theorized that studying cloned Neanderthals could help scientists better understand how the human mind works. Neanderthals have a larger skull than humans and it is possible Neanderthals may have been smarter than humans, scientists say.

But scientists have already extracted DNA from Neanderthal bones.

"It's more than theoretically possible to take a piece of DNA that's so degraded in a museum piece and put it into a cell and have that cell take on new properties, due to what was old information but is essentially newly synthesized DNA. That can be extended to almost any extinct species that is recent enough that we can get DNA from it," explained Church.

"This is something where the technology has gone far enough that the average person on the street really doesn't know that you can take a single cell from say the skin of a mouse and make a cell that can make every cell in the body. And you can prove that by putting it into the normal embryogenesis process and eventually out comes an animal that is entirely derived from that skin cell," he added.

Inside the American Museum of Natural History, DNA samples from Neanderthals are on display to visitors.

"In the case of Neanderthals we have young fossils 30,000 to 40,000 years old and indeed DNA exists in these fossils and can be isolated from the bones," said DeSalle.

But DeSalle, as well as Church, and most of the scientific community warn that experiments cloning Neanderthals would pose a host of ethical concerns. And no one thinks we will see the birth of a cloned Neanderthal.

"I think the likelihood of seeing a Neanderthal clone is the same as seeing a Tyrannosaurus rex in Central Park actually. And that's because there are so many ethical issues involved that I think the ethical issues would probably stop the experiment that someone might do to produce a Neanderthal embryo. Technologically though, it is getting to the point where it might be possible," said DeSalle.

Still, the readiness of bloggers, journalists and readers to believe a Neanderthal baby would be cloned led Church to ponder scientific literacy.

"Everybody's fib detector should have been going off. They should have been saying, 'What? Who would believe this?'... We should be able to detect that nobody is actually working on cloning Neanderthals in 2013."

Despite the spate of articles comparing him to the character in the book and movie "Jurassic Park" who attempts to open a theme park filled with living, cloned dinosaurs, Church said he plans to continue speaking publicly about his research, which focuses on using genes to treat and prevent disease.