Of mice, jellyfish & us

One of the great challenges of the twenty-first century will be our response to the combined power of new reproductive technologies and manipulation of the human gene. Two recent news stories illustrate the heart of the problem: scientists recognize they now face serious ethical problems but continue to do more or less nothing about them.

A New York Times story (December 23, 1999) reports a successful experiment in which jellyfish genes were mixed with the sperm cells of the rhesus monkey. The sperm, subsequently injected into monkey eggs, bypassed the natural fertilization process, allowing the jellyfish gene to enter the monkey egg. This process produced monkey embryos carrying the jellyfish gene. How do scientists know their experiment worked? One-third of the embryos glowed when a fluorescent light was shone on them; in another experiment, eleven of fifty-seven mice born through the same technique had green-glowing tails. This is scientific progress?

Some scientists think so. These seemingly modest developments in reproductive technology may eventually pave the way for sophisticated programs of genetic engineering, ultimately with human genes. Technical difficulties remain to actually inserting a human gene, for example, into a mouse egg, or the even more humanly compatible pig egg. We are promised, however, that these techniques will help in the development of spare human organs. And someday...

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