If you’ve read this outrageous WaPo op-ed that basically says you can’t expect moral behavior from scientists who are glorified baby-killers, you might appreciate this rebuttal at the Give Up Blog. The foundation of the fundiecrat anti-science article is that 1) Hwang Woo Suk was bad, therefore all stem cell/cloning research is tainted, and 2) alternative techniques (most of which they don’t seem to understand) and adult stem cells will give us all the answers we need.
Which actually leads into this week’s “ask a science blogger” question:
On July 5, 1996, Dolly the sheep became the first successfully cloned mammal. Ten years on, has cloning developed the way you expected it to?
What’s we’re learning is that cloning is a very hard problem. Development is more than just blindly replaying a program encoded in the genome: there’s all this information in the cytoplasm and the environment and in the history of the cell that is critical to forming the organism. The nucleus of the egg and sperm are specially prepared in highly specific ways to carry out the task of development, and what we’ve got right now is a set of hit-or-miss chance strategies that get a transplanted nucleus into a state that approximates that of a freshly fertilized zygote…we think. We don’t really know for sure, since the way we evaluate it is to see if the clone can grow to adulthood, and only a small percentage of the clones make it.
The way we should think about it is that totipotency is a highly specialized differentiated (I know, I’m turning that word topsy-turvy) cell state—we don’t know how to turn any random cell into a cortical pyramidal cell or an epithelial cell lining a nephric tubule, and making an egg cell is a similarly complex end result of some natural developmental engineering.
That’s why the ill-informed editorialists of the WaPo are all wrong. We don’t know what the limitations of adult stem cell lines are. We don’t know exactly what’s involved in generating the totipotent state. We need to understand the genetics and epigenetics of the embryonic stem cell, and we can only do that with basic research on embryonic stem cells. Telling biologists to content themselves with playing with adult stem cells or cells generated by novel and artificial (but interesting!) new techniques doesn’t replace the core knowledge we can acquire only by studying the cell state we want to be able to replicate.