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Alpha males and “adventurous human females”: gender and synthetic genomics

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In May of 2010, two influential Science papers changed the way that we think about the past and future of genomes. The decoding of the Neandertal genome showed that humans and Neandertals interbred some time before Neandertals went extinct some 30,000 years ago. A couple weeks later, the J. Craig Venter Institute announced their chemical synthesis of a complete bacterial genome and its “booting up” in a closely related cell. The coincidence of the announcement of ancient and synthetic genomes, as well as the recent publication of technologies for large scale bacterial genome engineering from George Church’s lab led some people to ask whether it would be possible to clone Neandertals by a combination of gene synthesis, human genome editing, and stem cell cloning.

While the New Scientist article about the implications of the Neandertal genome was pessimistic on the short-term prospect of “resurrecting” Neandertals, George Church himself has more recently made news by suggesting how such a future scenario might work in his recent book Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves. In the book’s introduction, Church (with science writer Ed Regis) writes:

You’d start with a stem cell genome from a human adult and gradually reverse-engineer it into the Neanderthal genome or a reasonably close equivalent. These stem cells can produce tissues and organs. If society becomes comfortable with cloning and sees value in true human diversity, then the whole Neanderthal creature itself could be cloned by a surrogate mother chimp–or by an extremely adventurous human female.

While the news storm has made it seem like this is an active area of research in the Church lab, George has been clear that his statements were meant to spark discussion about the myriad social and ethical aspects of such an endeavor given its possible technical feasibility, not to recruit any surrogate mothers to a study.

Ethical concerns have been paramount in the development of reproductive technologies, mammalian cloning, stem cell biology, genomics, and synthetic biology in recent decades, and the question of Neandertal resurrection would certainly engage with the ethical concerns arising from all of these fields. For now, I want to address just one very small social aspect of Church’s statement, and how it affects the practice of synthetic biology. For Church, the prospect of cloning Neandertals is in large part about diversity. In the Der Spiegel interview, Church contradicts the interviewer when asked whether it would be ethical to create a Neandertal for the sake of curiosity. Church says:

Well, curiosity may be part of it, but it’s not the most important driving force. The main goal is to increase diversity. The one thing that is bad for society is low diversity. This is true for culture or evolution, for species and also for whole societies. If you become a monoculture, you are at great risk of perishing. Therefore the recreation of Neanderthals would be mainly a question of societal risk avoidance.

For such a technological commitment to human diversity, Church’s book tells a very different story about diversity amongst the practitioners of synthetic biology. Of the approximately 160 names mentioned in the book’s index, only 10% are the names of women, and only one of those names is a practicing academic synthetic biologist, involved in the founding of one of Church’s many startup companies. The “extremely adventurous human female” mentioned in the context of Neandertal surrogacy (and easily replaceable by a chimpanzee) therefore represents a significant percentage of all the women mentioned in the whole book.

This observation points at not only the continuing lack of women and minorities in science, engineering, and technology, but at perhaps a deeper problem about the culturally perceived character of the engineer and the growing mythology surrounding well-known synthetic biologists. Craig Venter, a major figure in genomics, both natural and synthetic, and no stranger to the myth-making of scientists, wrote about how he sees himself in response to the 2013 Edge question “What *Should* We Be Worried About”:

As a scientist, an optimist, an atheist and an alpha male I don’t worry. As a scientist I explore and seek understanding of the world (s) around me and in me. As an optimist I wake up each morning with a new start on all my endeavors with hope and excitement. As an atheist I know I only have the time between my birth and my death to accomplish something meaningful. As an alpha male I believe I can and do work to solve problems and change the world.

As we write the history of synthetic biology and the pioneering scientists and engineers who are rewriting the code of life, it is these “alpha males” who are written as the adventurous creators of new life forms and “adventurous females” that are the anonymous vessels for their DNA-based creations. For Venter’s “Synthia,” the chemically synthesized genome came to be seen as “life,” while the host cell whose membrane, cytoplasm, and proteins “booted up” the inert DNA is but the “chassis.” In the potential design of a Neandertal baby, a human being is the “chassis” organism, the “donor cell” for a transplanted genome, the unpredictable host context that can confound synthetic biology designs.

In such scientific imaginings we get futuristic versions of some very retrograde cultural ideas about gender. While I know that these men don’t actually think of the women in their lives and in their labs as simply vessels for DNA (some of my best friends are male synthetic biologists!), I also know that leaving these kinds of statements unexamined can lead to an environment that makes it harder for women working in these labs, harder for women to be chosen as speakers at quantitative synthetic biology conferences, and harder for women to be promoted and advance in their field. Before we discuss the potential of cloned Neandertals to boost human diversity, we must first consider our role in boosting the diversity of our labs, companies, faculty, and conferences with the humans that actually exist.

Christina Agapakis About the Author: Christina Agapakis is a biological designer who blogs about biology, engineering, engineering biology, and biologically inspired engineering. Follow on Twitter @thisischristina.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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