02 September 2013
Assisted Conception Unit, Guy’s Hospital, King’s College London School of MedicineAppeared in BioNews 720
I could tell straight away that Canadian dentist Michael Zuk, who invested in John Lennon's rotten molar in the hope of cloning the great musician (see BioNews 719), is a big fan of Michael Crichton's 'Jurassic Park'. I could also tell that he never read Ira Levin's 'The Boys from Brazil' or 'Outliers' by Malcolm Gladwell. If he had, he would not have wasted his £20,000.
Let's ignore all those naysayers who cannot envision the possibility of a human being made from synthetic DNA. Even though current understanding suggests that this would be impossible for a number of reasons, we should not stifle our imagination. Imagine trying, for example, to explain the Internet to someone a hundred years ago. I doubt that many people would even grasp the concept. For argument's sake, let's move to a future when this would be possible.
There was enough DNA in the rotten tooth to obtain the whole genome sequence of John Lennon. The sequences were checked and rechecked numerous times to be sure that there were no reading errors and nary a base-pair was missing. Although he would never be able to confirm that none of the somatic mutations acquired during John's life altered his talent, Dr Zuk can be pretty sure that he is on safe ground; statistics tells us that, although possible, this would be a highly unlikely.
It is year 2043. Technology moved fast and what was science fiction 30 years ago is reality today. Dr Zuk becomes obscenely rich and spares no expense in pursuing his dream. A company in Silicon Valley creates synthetic DNA that matches John's 100 percent. End product: a single copy of John Lennon's whole genome, properly arranged, neatly packed in a nanocapsule.
By now, we have learned that DNA methylation and other epigenetic confusions do not stop us replicating an exact copy of a human being. It may alter the fur colour of cloned cats, but men are not cats.
Synthetic eggs, generated from induced pluripotent stem cells, are also readily available. Surrogate mothers are not needed either. Thanks to 2043's technology, women don't carry babies any more - pregnancy is a health risk for future mothers and no health insurance company in its right mind would cover pregnancy-related issues. Babies today grow in incubators. Thus, there are no ethical issues for Dr Zuk to face. DNA is swapped, an egg with John's DNA is placed in an incubator and nine months later John G2 is with us.
John G2 grows and thrives. His wishes are Dr Zuk's commands. He has everything a kid could wish for, even more. He does not have to learn how to play the guitar by himself, he has the best music teachers around. To Dr Zuk's delight, John G2 likes music and comes up with his own songs.
John G2 is charming, intelligent, but, somehow… not quite as exceptional as the original John. Years pass; John G2 is in his forties already. Although he is writing music, there's nothing even close to 'Strawberry Fields Forever', 'Help!' or 'Imagine'.
If Dr Zuk read 'The Boys from Brazil' and 'Outliers', he would probably understand that human beings are not the same as the T. Rex. We humans are not the product of only our genes, but also of environment, community, society, time, people: everything around, within and without us.
Being filthy rich, he might try to mimic to the smallest details that forged John G1. However, even if he let John G2 grow up in Liverpool among top actors who would take lifelong roles and recreate the complex family situation in which the real John Lennon grew up, he would not be able to create the atmosphere that reflected the Vietnam War, the women's rights movement, race relations, and everything else in the cultural crucible that made John Lennon extraordinary.