Human-Animal Hybrids? What On Earth Was That About?
If you, like me, wondered what on earth banning "human-animal hybrids" was about in the State of the Union address, I did the research and I've become convinced that Jeremy Rifkin and Pat Robertson are the same person. Have you ever seen them together? My suggested headline is above but my editor went for the more prosaic model you see below. (UPDATED to correct that the bacteria used for insulin production are more properly classified as plants than as animals; the distinction doesn't work particularly well at the unicellular level. But the mice definitely are human-animal hybrids under any reasonable definition.)
BUSH PROPOSAL COULD KILL VITAL RESEARCH
East Valley Tribune, February 5, 2006
Even by the standards of the now-usual George W. Bush State of the Union address (Let’s go to Mars! The federal government must rid professional sports of steroids!), one moment in last Tuesday’s speech was surpassingly weird: When Bush called for legislation to prohibit “creating human-animal hybrids.”
Huh? Is yet another remake of “The Island of Dr. Moreau” planned, and Bush fears Marlon Brando’s definitive 1996 performance might be forgotten?
For most people, the need for a federal ban of human-animal hybrids probably wasn’t on their list of pressing national concerns. But the president sees saving America from the specter of Boar Man and Hyena-Swine as a key priority, so he called for a ban on this sort of thing, whatever it is.
But like many things Bush says, in the real world it’s not quite that simple. As Prof. Kieran Healy of the University of Arizona points out, the health of millions of Americans depends on a laboratory-created hybrid with human DNA. Genetically modified E. coli bacteria produce almost all the commercial supply of insulin needed by diabetics. Some of the bacteria’s DNA is replaced with human DNA, allowing the bacteria to secrete human insulin.
Bacteria are single-cell organisms, but if Bush’s ban on human-animal hybrids is as broad and as poorly executed as basically everything else the administration has done (Iraq, the Medicare drug fiasco, Katrina, the deficit, the Palestinian elections, need I continue?), then single-celled organisms created and modified by inserting human DNA would be banned. With no economic way to produce insulin (we’d have to return to harvesting glands from corpses), millions of diabetics will die.
Maybe you think that’s too extreme; Bush didn’t mean bacteria, but rather “real” animals, like mice. Unfortunately, as Prof. P. Z. Myers of the University of Minnesota, Morris noted, Bush’s ban would stop promising research into treatment of Down syndrome.
Down syndrome results from having an extra chromosome 21, which can cause problems including heart defects, weakened immune systems, and mental retardation. Scientists have sought to create an animal model of Down syndrome, for experiments to determine which extra genes on chromosome 21 cause which problems, the first step to developing treatments or possible cures.
Scientists have been inserting groups of human genes into mice, seeking to produce similar “genetic overdoses” to study Down syndrome in detail. But last September, a group of British researchers announced in Science that they had successfully inserted an entire human chromosome 21 into mouse embryonic stem cells. Using those cells, the researchers have created mice with the wrong number of chromosomes (the scientific term is “aneuploid”). The mice show many symptoms of Down syndrome, including heart defects and central nervous system anomalies.
The group plans to study these mice, to learn if new therapies could counteract the harm caused by extra genes on the extra chromosome. These aneuploid mice can help medical researchers understand and eventually treat a serious human affliction -- but Bush just called for a ban that would stop this research.
But this is pretty subtle stuff, certainly not as striking as the pig-man or the mouse with a human ear. But that’s the intellectual level of a George W. Bush State of the Union speech. He’s more than willing to block useful medical advances and future research for the sake of a good sound bite.
Unless what’s really going on here is the usual “soft bigotry of low expectations” that applies to Bush himself. We’re not to take this seriously, because nobody expects President Bush to understand what he’s saying, much less such subtle adverse consequences.
Maybe calling for a ban on human-animal hybrids appeals to certain scientific illiterates, but we all have to hope that this latest Bush weirdness has only the same staying power as his previous trial balloons concerning Mars, steroids, Iraqi yellowcake, and Social Security privatization. Because if not, it’s a huge, hurtful mistake.