Friday, February 17, 2017

Hello Dolly!

My daughter was in high school when quite a bit of science-related stuff happened all around for her to get that much more excited about biology and chemistry.  Along with her class, she wrote to Al Gore, who was then the vice president, relaying her worries about global warming and the future that she would inherit.  Perhaps influenced by the rabid opinion-spewing father at home, she also wrote an opinion essay, which the newspaper published.  She used the context of the controversy over the cloned sheep, Dolly, in order to advocate for continued research into genetics.

Ah, those were the much simpler days, when the American public seemed to care for real news, and the public was not as crazy as it is now in the way it treats scientific understanding!   In contrast, we now have a president who tells us over and over again that he alone knows what the truth is, on anything and everything, from racism to putin to climate change!  And we have 63 million Americans, on their knees like how the maniac always seems to picture people, licking his golden boots!

It is now twenty years since Dolly was cloned.

It was not a case of "America First!"  It happened in a remote Scotland, an ancestral home of this maniacal president--his mother was an illegal immigrant from there.  If only a few Native Americans had deported her right then and there!

Dolly was a revolutionary moment in science:
Dolly was a clone. Rather than being made from a sperm and an egg, she originated from a mammary gland cell of another, no-longer-living, six-year-old Fynn Dorset ewe.
With her birth, a scientific and societal revolution was also born.
It was one of those moments when we could truly appreciate the profoundness of Thomas Kuhn's theory on scientific revolutions.  We were right there watching the paradigm shifting.
Dolly was produced by what’s called somatic cell nuclear transfer. In this process, researchers remove the genetic material from an egg and replace it with the nucleus of some other body cell. The resulting egg becomes a factory to produce an embryo that develops into an offspring. No sperm is in the picture; instead of half the genetic material coming from a sperm and half from an egg, it all comes from a single cell.
No sperm was involved.  It provided for plenty of comic punchlines.  One I remember is this: A female comedian joking that even though men might not be needed for their sperm, they will be needed to kill spiders crawling in the bathrooms!

The scientific community always treats a finding that is too good to be true to be worthy of replication; if falsified, then more glory.  But, Dolly was for real.  And more happened.
It was amazing to see a differentiated cell – an adult cell specialized to do its particular job – transform into an embryonic one that could go on to give rise to all the other cells of a normal body. We researchers wondered if we could go further: Could we in the lab make an adult cell once again undifferentiated, without needing to make a cloned embryo?
A decade after Dolly was announced, stem cell researcher Shynia Yamanaka’s team did just that. He went on to be the Nobel corecipient with Gurdon for showing that mature cells could be reprogrammed to become pluripotent: able to develop into any specialized adult cell.
Any specialized adult cell.  It is a brave new world.  I am not sure if I am happy with such developments, but, as Isaac Asimov wonderfully articulated in an essay that we read back in high school, there is no way but forward.
The new Dollies are now telling us that if we take a cell from an animal of any age, and we introduce its nucleus into a nonfertilized mature egg, we can have an individual born with its lifespan fully restored. They confirmed that all signs of biological and chronological age matched between cloned and noncloned sheep.
There seems to be a natural built-in mechanism in the eggs that can rejuvenate a cell. We don’t know what it is yet, but it is there. Our group as well as others are hard at work, and as soon as someone finds it, the most astonishing legacy of Dolly will be realized.
Re-read this: "an individual born with its lifespan fully restored."  Creepy science fiction-like, right?  But, hey, there is no going back.  Just like we cannot undo the results of the election that have provided to the US and the world the most horrible human being as the President of the US!


Ramesh said...

Indeed , there is no going back. There is simply no way to tell where scientific research will lead us. We will embark into frontiers that even a century ago would have seemed to be utter fantasy and probably even scary. Remember when trains were first introduced people were absolutely terrified of the speed of 20 kmph.

It will be a fascinating journey. Along the way mankind will get a few things right and will make horrible mistakes. This is why I find science fiction fascinating because many of these have been explored - Arthur C Clarke for example has speculated a future wherein humans are only cloned.He envisioned Earth with only a few thousand humans, living virtually eternally and having a country as their home. It wasn't scary - just so so different from anything we have experienced.

Well, the future will be utterly fascinating. We of course will not be there to see it. But we have been part of the journey.

Sriram Khé said...

"We of course will not be there to see it. But we have been part of the journey."

Yes, what an awesome journey, right? And the craziest thing is this, which I often tell students: Life until about 200 years ago was no different from how life was forever until then. It has been one heck of a magic carpet ride ever since the Industrial Revolution. And now even more magical/SciFi with the Information Revolution. I wish education helped people understand such things, instead of the crap that we teach people :(

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