Viral ‘cave baby’ rumor spurs Harvard geneticist to call for greater scientific literacy

Wendy Maeda/ Globe Staff/File photo
Wendy Maeda/ Globe Staff/File photo
Professor George Church is a leader in the synthetic biology field.

Harvard Medical School genetics professor George Church found himself at the middle of a viral Internet kerfuffle this weekend. Blogs and news websites picked up on an interview in the German publication, Der Spiegel, and distorted his speculative comments about the technological feasibility of cloning a Neanderthal to suggest the scientist was looking for volunteers: “Wanted: ‘Adventurous woman’ to give birth to Neanderthal man—Harvard professor seeks mother for cloned cave baby,” the Daily Mail newspaper in the United Kingdom announced.

The interview, if one bothers to read it, is prototypically Church: it unflinchingly looks toward the technology of the future, taking an optimistic and expansive view of what will one day be possible. The discussion unfolds like a thought experiment, with Church considering the ethical, social, and regulatory issues that could arise from a range of potential futuristic scenarios, from recreating Neanderthals to creating new life forms.

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The passage that got him in particular trouble is here:

SPIEGEL: Setting aside all ethical doubts, do you believe it is technically possible to reproduce the Neanderthal?

Church: The first thing you have to do is to sequence the Neanderthal genome, and that has actually been done. The next step would be to chop this genome up into, say, 10,000 chunks and then synthesize these. Finally, you would introduce these chunks into a human stem cell. If we do that often enough, then we would generate a stem cell line that would get closer and closer to the corresponding sequence of the Neanderthal. We developed the semi-automated procedure required to do that in my lab. Finally, we assemble all the chunks in a human stem cell, which would enable you to finally create a Neanderthal clone.

SPIEGEL: And the surrogates would be human, right? In your book you write that an “extremely adventurous female human” could serve as the surrogate mother.

Church: Yes. However, the prerequisite would, of course, be that human cloning is acceptable to society.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Church noted that he is not working on sequencing Neanderthal DNA. He is not synthesizing it. He is not working on cloning any whole organisms, Neanderthal or otherwise. He said the pickup of the news story and the subsequent headline creep online has been instructive and made him concerned about the level of basic science literacy, in comparison to other spheres of society.

“When you see how gullible people were on this particular incident, I wonder,” Church said. “If we really talked about [science] as much as we talk about other things,” would this same thing have happened?

For example, Church said, “if somebody had said that some football team had thrown a 200-yard pass, everyone would have laughed and said, ‘April fools!’ and something got distorted. But this is a much longer pass than a 200-yard pass” and people were willing to believe it unquestioningly and pass it on, letting the story grow more outlandish with each iteration.

Church is willing to talk and think big, which is partly why he has been so successful as a scientist, and also part of what made his comments so ripe to be taken out of context. He thinks far ahead, he said, because the change he’s seen over his career in science has been so massive. He’s helped enable a downward spiral in the cost of sequencing DNA, from around $3 billion to $3,000 for an entire human genome.

“So I have a tendency to think in increments bigger than I, say, would have when I was younger,” Church said.

He sees communication with the public as a major part of his job and added that he doesn’t think this incident will cause him to shy away from talking openly about the future trajectory of science. If anything, it argues for greater engagement with communicating science, Church said, so that politicians, chief executives, and the general public can engage seriously with the topic.

He hopes that greater understanding will mean a less credulous audience. But he said much of the reaction has been supportive. More than 100 people have e-mailed him, volunteering for the job of being surrogate to the first cloned Neanderthal. Unfortunately, as they could have found out by reading his interview, that job isn’t open—in his lab, or anyone else’s.