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Foreign Bodies: Attack of the Clones

By Gemma Angel, on 18 February 2013

Profile  by Felicity Winkley

 

 

 

 

 

One of the most controversial specimens amongst the Grant Museum’s encyclopaedic collection is a preserved domestic cat; in fact, on one occasion, I was standing quite close to this object at the exact moment when a small child laid eyes upon it and promptly burst into tears. The fact that the sight of preserved animals, particularly domesticated or fluffy ones, provokes such a response would be ample topic for a debate in its own right, however in this instance I am more interested in the way the Grant have developed the subject in their museum signage. Beside the exhibit, they point out that in 2004 the first domesticated cat was cloned for $50,000 – a kitten called ‘Little Nicky’, commissioned by a Texan woman called Julie after the original cat ‘Nicky’ had died [1] – and ask whether or not this was a good thing to do? nickyAt the time of the cloning in 2004, the response from the scientific community was negative: it was thought a fatuous use of the technology to reproduce a domestic pet, as well as inhumane given the animal’s short life-expectancy (roughly a third of cloned cats did not survive beyond 60 days).[2] Today, expanding the subject beyond the cloning of domestic animals, as part of the successful QRator scheme (in which visitors are invited to record their responses to topical questions relating to the collections), the Grant Museum asks the public to contribute to a wider debate: Should we clone extinct animals?

The argument is a complex one. For one thing, extinct animals may have died out because of their own comparative weaknesses, and therefore any attempts to reintroduce them may prove futile. The journalist Chris Packham, for example, has famously lambasted attempts to conserve the Giant Panda, criticising the huge amounts of money spent on attempting to breed an animal which is so reluctant to reproduce itself. He suggests that the Giant Panda is “a species that of its own accord has gone down an evolutionary cul-de-sac” and therefore should be allowed to die out, not least because any attempts to reintroduce it into the wild will be limited by the increasingly diminishing area of its potential habitat anyway.[3] Where cloning animals and reintroducing them is concerned, habitat is also an issue in terms of preempting any potential environmental changes that might have occurred since the species was last present in the wild. The repercussions of reintroducing clones despite drastic ecosystem change are fairly clearly (if not necessarily realistically!) laid out for us to see in Jurassic Park. Although the author accepts this is an extreme example, it is nevertheless an effective visualisation of what can occur when we tamper with complicated systems of which we have limited understanding.

Jurassic Park III

 

But what of those species made extinct by human influence, and through no fault of their own? The quagga, hunted to extinction in 1883, and the thylacine, in 1936, are both on display in exhibition cases at the Grant Museum. If we accept, then, the fault of human oversight, perhaps these two could justifiably be cloned and reintroduced into the wild – but given the cost of the procedure and the potentially limited life-span of the animal subjects, wouldn’t the enormous investment be better applied to conserving those species still alive today but in dire need of assistance? The Amur leopard population, for example, is currently at a critical low, with just 7-12 thought to remain in the wild in China and 20-25 in Russia.[4]

Taking into account all of these conflicting arguments where cloning is concerned, it was with some interest, therefore, that I read a few weeks ago about a Harvard professor’s hopes for recruiting a female volunteer willing to surrogate a baby created with Neanderthal DNA.[5] Geneticist Professor George Church has recently completed enough Neanderthal bone-sample analysis to accurately isolate the genetic code that would enable him to create artificial Neanderthal DNA, according to his publication Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves.[6] Having previously been involved in the Human Genome Project, which successfully mapped human DNA, Professor Church would insert artificial Neanderthal DNA into stem cells and inject these into a human embryo in the earliest stages, allowing this to develop in the laboratory before implanting it into the womb of a potential surrogate mother. He believes that Neanderthals, whose population flourished in Europe and extended throughout the Middle East and into China between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, were highly intelligent. This impression is certainly supported by archaeological evidence: the skulls of Neanderthals held large brains, “in the range of and exceeding the cranial capacity of modern humans” state Lewin and Foley.[7] As such, Professor Church proposes that a cloning and reintroduction of Neanderthals could be useful to increase diversity, and introduce an alternative way of thinking into society:

When the time comes to deal with an epidemic or getting off the planet or whatever, it’s conceivable that their way of thinking could be beneficial. They could maybe even create a new neo-Neanderthal culture and become a political force. The main goal is to increase diversity. The one thing that is bad for society is low diversity.[8]

Aside from the obvious concerns about the potential risks to the surrogate mother of a baby created via this method, critics have also challenged the ethics of the proposed experiment. Whilst the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union prohibits reproductive human cloning in member states of the EU, and it is likewise illegal in the UK under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 – because the project proposes the cloning of a Neanderthal rather than a Homo Sapiens, there are fears that current legislation may not apply. In any case, there is no uniform guideline agreed for the United States of America on human cloning, whether reproductive or therapeutic. But were Professor Church to have his way, how would a new Neanderthal cope in modern-day society? Physically, could their immune system withstand it? Emotionally, would they successfully integrate, or be outcast as a monster? Whatever the answer – and luckily at the moment our concerns are purely speculative – there is no denying that a neo-Neanderthal person would be the ultimate foreign body.

 

How Did Man Lose His Penis Bone?

By Gemma Angel, on 26 November 2012

Suzanne Harvey #2 by Suzanne Harvey

 

 

 

 

 

The walrus penis bone, also known as an os penis or baculum, is one of the most popular objects at the Grant Museum. The human penis is haemodynamic, meaning an erection is achieved by blood pressure alone. In animals with an os penis, blood pressure still plays an important role, but the pressure functions to push a bone structure into the penis in order to achieve an erection. This has many benefits over an erection sustained by blood pressure alone, not least in keeping the glans open for sperm to pass through.

 

While the importance of shaft size and sperm competition has been discussed in my previous blog post, even the largest penis will offer no evolutionary advantage if sperm cannot escape: these much desired qualities will never be passed to offspring. This is not the only benefit. The os penis increases the potential duration of intercourse and also the frequency with which intercourse can take place. For example, a lioness can copulate 100 times per day, sometimes with only four minute intervals, but has only a 38% conception rate1 – males need to keep up if they’re to achieve the best chance of paternity. It comes as a surprise to many people that the os penis exists at all, but in fact humans, woolley monkeys and spider monkeys are the only primates to lack this handy piece of anatomy.

With such benefits to structure, strength, endurance and recovery time, the next question must be: where is man’s penis bone? This is where the story becomes more intriguing…

Was it sacrificed for the sake of woman?

While the lack of a human penis bone may have interested evolutionary scientists for many years, it has recently attracted attention from professors of Theology as well. The debate was reignited in 2001 with the publication of a letter entitled Congenital human baculum deficiency: the generative bone of Genesis 2:21-23. Without wishing to delve into a religion vs. science debate, perhaps the most surprising aspect of this article is that it was published in the American Journal of Medical Genetics, with its central theory that God took Adam’s os penis to create Eve in the Garden of Eden, rather than his rib:

Ribs lack any intrinsic generative capacity. We think it is far more probable that it was Adam’s baculum that was removed in order to make Eve. That would explain why human males, of all the primates and most other mammals, did not have one.2

The authors then go on to cite possible mistranslations of the Hebrew word ‘tzela’, which can be translated as ‘rib’ or more generally as a supporting structure such as a baculum. More recently however, a study using the dissection and microscopic analysis of human, dog and rat penises revealed something rather unexpected…

Perhaps it was there all along!

With the comprehensive list of benefits discussed above, the root of this problem seems to be in discovering how on earth humans manage to function without an os penis. As a rule, larger penises in humans can give an evolutionary advantage, but without the toughness of structure provided by a bone, how do they avoid buckling under the pressure? Well, through both microscopic analyses and collagen tissue staining, the elusive evidence has finally been discovered. In the core of the human penis, there is a tunica (or lining) with many elastic fibres acting to keep the penis rigid in much the same way as an os penis. This has been referred to as the distal ligament, and is a structure so robust that even after some venous removal, erection can still be achieved without the need for a fully formed bone structure.4 In somewhat less good news for men, the authors of this study further hypothesise that if damaged, the distal ligament may take as long as a broken bone to heal.

So we are left with the final puzzle of why man lost his penis bone but retained a structure that serves a similar purpose. For the answer to this, we may need to look to women. Sexual selection works on the premise of ‘honest signals’. Put simply, females need to select high quality males to ensure the best genes for their offspring, and a penis that works predominantly through haemodynamics takes a lot of energy to produce. Therefore this is an honest signal of the most healthy males in the same way that the healthiest stags grow the largest antlers. In the end, for all the dissection, microscopic analyses and experiments with cadavers, Adam may have given up his penis bone for Eve after all.

 

Suzanne Harvey is a PhD student in Biological Anthropology, working on social interactions and communication in wild olive baboons. She is also a teaching assistant on the UCL Arts and Sciences BASc, a new interdisciplinary degree, and can be found on twitter @suzemonkey.

 

References:

1. Rudnai, J. A. (1973). Reproductive biology of lions (Panthera leo massaica Neumann) in Nairobi National Park. East African Wildlife Journal II: 241 – 53.

2. Gilbert, S. F. & Zevit, Z. (2001). Congenital human baculum deficiency: the generative bone of Genesis 2:21-23. American Journal of Medical Genetics 101(3): 284-5.

3. Hsu, G. L., Lin, C. W., Hsieh, C. H., Hsieh, J. T., Chen, S. C., Kuo, T. F., Ling, P. Y., Huang, H. M., Wang, C. J., & Tseng, G. F. (2005). Distal ligament in human glans: a comparative study of penile architecture.Journal of Andrology 26(5): 624-8.

4. Hsieh, C. H., Liu, S. P., Hsu, G. L., Chen, H. S., Molodysky, E., Chen, Y. H., Yu, H. J. (2012). Advances in understanding of mammalian penile evolution, human penile anatomy and human erection physiology: clinical implications for physicians and surgeons. Medical Science Monitor 18(7): 118-25.