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Bull Session

On Cloning

March 24, 2016          

Episode Summary

On The Digital Life this week, we discuss efforts to clone animal species to save them from extinction. In Seoul, Korea, a controversial lab plans to clone endangered animals using a technique called Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT), in which you extract the nucleus of skin cells from the animal you wish to clone, and then insert them into an egg with its nucleus removed. The lab has successfully used SCNT in their current business, cloning favorite pets who are recently deceased for a high price tag.

Resources
Inside the Cloning Factory that Creates 500 New Animals a Day

Jon:
Welcome to Episode 148 of The Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk:
How are you doing, Jon?

Jon:
I’m doing good. Today we’re going to chat a little bit about the cutting edge of genomic science, specifically about what can be seen in a very controversial way we’re going to discuss cloning, and in this case the cloning of animals to save species that may go extinct.

Dirk:
That’s a pretty specific topic there, Jon.

Jon:
Yeah. Or rather that’s the topic that’s engendering this larger conversation about genomics, cloning, and extinction. The news story that generated that topic for us was a lab in Seoul, Korea led by a controversial scientist plans to move from cloning pets, so you might have a beloved pet who you want to continue to accompany you and be with you and your family, they can clone those now, and they’re going to move from cloning pets to cloning animals that are on the verge of extinction.

Dirk:
Let’s start with cloning pets, what do you think of that?

Jon:
Well, first when I was reading the news story, because I’m not immediately aware of all the advances in cloning, I was kind of shocked that you could actually do that. The technique is called somatic cell nuclear transfer, and you extract the nucleus of a skin cell from the animal that you want to clone and you put it into an egg where the nucleus is removed. That’s kind of freaky. I don’t know what you read as a teenager but I read a lot of Stephen King which might say a lot about me, but regardless I read a lot of Stephen King and he has this novel called “Pet Cemetery” and it’s all about this spooky burial ground where people take their beloved pets and they go and they bury them and then a couple of days later, pop, they come out and these cats and dogs show up.

They’re not right, they’re freaky resurrected pets. Then so mayhem ensues, and that’s “Pet Cemetery”.

Dirk:
Hey ho, let’s go.

Jon:
There are movies, at least one movie about that. What we have here, I mean I hate to say it but it’s kind of similar, you’re taking the skin cell from your pet that you love so much and you’re creating more or less the pet again. They have some photos on the New Scientist site of some of these pets, and the reporter’s comment on it was it was a little freaky because some of these cloned pets had the same mannerisms. They have a couple of cloned dogs there and they have very similar mannerisms which they’re both sort of doing at roughly the same time which kind of freaked the reporter out. All that is to say that is technology, number one, that I didn’t know really existed beyond sort of the stage of if you remember Dolly the sheep that got cloned maybe it was like a decade ago now.

Dirk:
More than that, yeah.

Jon:
Yeah. From what I understood Dolly was not a healthy kind of sheep because the DNA was at a stage where it had degraded a certain amount and so was not behaving like the DNA would for a young sheep. They had a young sheep with old DNA, that didn’t sound to me to be a good fit and these clones had all sorts of problems. I’m not familiar with what the scenario is now and whether they’ve figured out some of those problems going forward, but wow, to have these pets, I mean that’s sort of a desire that people have is, boy, I wish I could continue onward, I wish life, that things weren’t mortal. It’s like this weird unveiling of a kind of immortality.

I do wonder if there’s degraded DNA in these cloned pets, but I think you can take from my long diatribe that I’m a little disturbed by it and maybe I’m just not sophisticated enough to understand what the implications are, but I’m a little unnerved by it all. Your turn.

Dirk:
Yeah, I mean back in the old country they call it simulacrum. I mean look, Jon, I’m not really unnerved by it, I’m more curious about it, which is to say there’s a lot of potential data here to tell us about life and death. We have these sort of anecdotal things about the people saying, “It has some of the same mannerism, yada yada yada.” What I would be interested in is a serious scientific study on every owners, as many owners as you can get to consent of cloned pets providing voluminous data on similarities and differences across a whole wide vector of things. What’s the delta between a clone from a skin cell and the original being? We can’t ask the dogs and cats if they have memory.

Jon:
Right.

Dirk:
We can’t ask them if that skin cell somehow gives them the memories of the original being. We’ll assume not but we don’t know for sure. I want data. I want to know how much of the existence of that thing, of that original being has carried forward through this cloning process. I think that’s incredibly interesting. I don’t think these anecdotal comments without scientific rigor matter for anything. Just because the dog scratches its ear the same way the other one did, I don’t know that that tells us much. There’s also not a lot of good control over nature nurture issues. Maybe pets behave a certain way because of the environment and the way that they’re treated. I think there’s more questions than answers but there are questions I’m very curious about.

At the end of the day unless there’s something problematic with this technology, even though I worry this stuff’s also confusing in a certain way, unless there’s problems with this technology which would result in screwing up the gene pool and having unanticipated longer term effects, does it really matter whether the cell that creates a being came from a sperm or a skin cell or an egg. There’s the whole nature while one is natural, one’s not. I don’t know, I mean my skin cell is every bit as natural as my little sperm. It’s just that we’re using the skin cell in ways that the way that our species has evolved to this point isn’t naturally a process to create another being, but does that make it wrong, does that make it bad? No, no, not inherently so.

I think we just need more data. We need to really understand what we’re dealing with here as we get further and further into cloning.

Jon:
Yeah. I think what amazes me firstly about these areas of emerging technology is the speed at which they are moving towards commercialization. It’s a revelation to me that this is now a service that you can buy. It’s 2016. I suppose that in the back of my mind maybe I would have considered that when reading about Dolly the cloned sheep, but not in a serious way. Of course it’s not a widely available service and you can’t just go to the vet and say, “Hey, I’d really like a copy of my beloved dog who is now too old and we need to put down.” You can see that we’re beginning to see this wave come in of these types of services which quite frankly seemed along the lines of science fiction not too long ago. The speed of adoption and commercialization is always surprising to me whether it should be or not. Let’s turn now a little bit-

Dirk:
Before we turn. The speed of commercialization I would say is surprising to me as well but the fact that it’s happening isn’t. When the Dolly story first broke, and I think it was 20 years ago, I immediately took for granted that very soon humans would be cloned in laboratories in places that we couldn’t see or wouldn’t hear about. Like we’re being naïve if we don’t think that shortly on the heels of Dolly there were rogue scientists, perhaps even in a Black Ops sort of way endorsed by governments but in very secretive fashion who were experimenting with pets and humans and pushing it right to the limit. I’m sure that’s happened, I’m sure it’s happening.

I’m sure there’s a lot of data on human cloning that’s in some weird pockets of the black scientific community, and the only question is when is that going to break surface and what’s that going to look like. The speed of commercialization that does surprise me a little bit more, although to be fair it’s happening in South Korea, they’re very progressive technologically. I think here in the United States if that was a service, if there were TV commercials I think we’d have some problems.

Jon:
Yeah.

Dirk:
I think there would be some Donald Trump voters out there who would not be very happy with what was going on.

Jon:
Yeah, I could see the picket line now. I was reflecting that part of this story is of course the idea that we can use cloning to bring certain animals back from the brink of extinction. I think there’s an interesting, for lack of a better term, system design question there because the proponents of cloning say, “Okay, we can create more of these species, and therefore, greater populations and they’ll interbreed and it will be fine.” The folks who oppose this say, “Look, the real problem is that we’re crushing their environments and reducing the amount of land that they have for their habitat and they can’t find food to eat, so that’s the real problem there.”

We’re talking about a system design problem in so far as if the environmental issues were addressed you might not need to introduce this cloning technique to preserve the species and using technology as a band aid to solve something that could be handled and probably should be handled in a more responsible manner by preserving these habitats. I think this is actually a very good example of how a system design perspective could bring some further clarity to the issue whether or not that’s possible in this particular circumstance, that’s an open question. I think there’s a set of technologies coming on that are going to have massive opportunity to impact problems like these that we had never considered before, using cloning to prevent extinction.

I think there is going to be an area of design that rises up to meet this challenge. I for one am interested in where this all will go. Dirk, what’s your take on the extinction versus cloning question?

Dirk:
Well, I think it’s sort of a false dichotomy. I think the bigger question is does extinction matter? Over the course of the history of this planet huge numbers of animals have become extinct. I don’t know if it’s in the millions, it’s certainly in the many, many thousands, but species become extinct. I’m certainly Liberal but I’m going to take a little bit of issue with Liberals here. We on the Liberal side are very quick to condemn any time that human action and infiltration results in the extinction of a species. The extinction of species is something that happens in the normal course of time, long periods of time in many different species. I think it’s a little arrogant that we particularly focus on, A, the species that we’re killing. Like there’s something inherently bad with some random species X being killed, becoming extinct.

Now there may be some ecological argument that there’s a particular species that are vital to the food chain or vital to the system, but I’m not smart enough or certainly not well educated in these areas enough to pick through that and make those distinctions. We don’t look at it that way. We have this blanket, “Oh my God, the wildebeest cat from Nairobi is becoming extinct, batten down the hatches.” That’s just silly in a certain way. Everything dies. Everything dies at the end of the day. To me the whole premise of, “Well, we have to save all of these species and do whatever we can and use cloning or whatever means,” is just sort of silly.

And bringing back old species, there’s the alarmists who are like, “Oh my God.” It’s like Jurassic Park chaos theory thing. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s just so unbelievable.” If we bring back a Tyrannosaurus Rex maybe we’ll create some trouble for ourselves but if we bring back, again, Nairobi wild cat whatever, I don’t think we’re in too much danger. There’s always a hue and cry whether it be pythons in the Everglades or Chinese carp in the Great Lakes of infiltration of non-native species and it’s the end of the world. The world doesn’t seem to be ending. The Everglades and the Great Lakes seem to be okay. Not to be too insensitive to the whole thing.

I think we just need to step back a little and kind of get rid of our sense of self-importance of if the behaviors of humanity are moving animals around are making animals extinct, there might be examples where that’s a really bad thing, but more often than not I don’t think it’s really the end of the world, I think that it’s life playing out as life plays out, and we’re the apex predator that is definitely taking over the world in a certain way. Taking the stance with the whole conversation of is it cloning or is it addressing the human infiltration of natural environments, look, we’re going to keep infiltrating the natural environments, that’s not slowing down any time soon. The human population continues to increase.

Our addiction to capitalism and technology and all of these things that are about obliterating the natural world and replacing it with something that’s human-made and controlled only continues to increase. Barring massive ecological change and/or really impactful terrorism or war none of this is going to change, we’re going to keep plodding down this path. To me the whole conversation is just stupid. If somebody can make a case that there are certain animals that for specific reasons should be not extinct then great. Or if there are cloning people who just say, “Hey, this cat is really freaking cool-looking and I want to make a clone of one and stick it in a zoo.” Fine, whatever. To me the whole nature of this overblown conversation is arrogant if not narcissistic and focused on entirely the wrong things.

Jon:
I do think that generally speaking that the argument for biodiversity, in other words, no one specific species going extinct but the idea that we are tied to our environment in ways other than we can fully grok rings true to me.

Dirk:
It rings true to me, too.

Jon:
As I’m not a biologist or an ecologist, as you pointed out, however, I wouldn’t hesitate to think that there is ample evidence that in order to have systemic balance human beings certainly can’t be living in isolation from all these other creatures. For instance, we know very well that our microbiome is vital to our own sort of personal ecology, and extrapolating from that fact that we work with other creatures even in our own bodies, I do think there’s a biodiversity argument to be made there although I’m certainly not the one who should be making it.

Dirk:
Yeah. I mean these things all make sense in theory and in the aggregate but when it converts to people having outrage over the extinction of this species just ignorantly, I don’t know, I think a lot of what we do is ignorant as opposed to informed, and I’m not seeing a lot of evidence from the scientists who speak up and ring the alarm of past catastrophes that would speak to what their claims are.

Jon:
Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning herein real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com, that’s just one L in thedigitalife and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you are listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. If you want to follow us outside of the show you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett, that’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios which you can check out at goinvo.com, that’s G-O-I-N-V-O-dot-com. Dirk?

Dirk:
You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer, that’s @-D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R or email me dirk@goinvo.com.

Jon:
That’s it for Episode 148 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next time.

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