Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Saturday, April 3, 2010

How would Neanderthals live among us?

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Neanderthal, 1994. Silver gelatin print of an edition of 25. 20¨x24¨

Having read Isaac Asimov´s stories of robots or human-robots living among us, I´m not surprised that Japanese have their robot teachers. But we know they are machines. The Bicentennial Man is showing the emotional, ethical and legal problems of a robot that is becoming human. We can live with it, every time he is under ¨surgery¨, he is more human, but, a modern human, who has ¨feelings¨ (remember, he was an imperfect robot) and behaviors like anybody else.
This blog is about architecture and urbanism, but so many times I have stated habitat, culture, identity, is imbued in architecture. And now, I´ve found this article, which is scientific, but makes me think about future possibilities –researchers are completely sure they´ll be successful one year or another- of prehistoric people living among us. Maybe in colonies, as they propose, because man cannot be alone.
 The economical barriers to create them, seem to be solved, every day clonation is cheaper and faster. After they solve the technical issues,  there must be a good place on earth for the neo-Neanderthals to live. Some think they would adapt to us, to our cities, to our maladies. Lots of them won´t make it. Who knows, now, it seems a science fiction story, but it´s not. The paragraphs below, are taken from the article ¨Should we clone Neanderthals?¨ written by Zach Zorich, senior editor of Archaeology, a magazine from the Archaeological Institute of America. Volume 63, Number 2, March/April 2010.
Below is the link to complete the reading, I highly recommend this article, in our field, urbanists should have the obligation to think about the new urban-sociological concerns that will be a consequence of primitive man´s clonation. Correction: they were not Homo Sapiens, that could make the difference.

Neanderthal and modern man. Image from

If Neanderthals ever walk the earth again, the primordial ooze from which they will rise is an emulsion of oil, water, and DNA capture beads engineered in the laboratory of 454 Life Sciences in Branford, Connecticut. Over the past 4 years those beads have been gathering tiny fragments of DNA from samples of dissolved organic materials, including pieces of Neanderthal bone. Genetic sequences have given paleoanthropologists a new line of evidence for testing ideas about the biology of our closest extinct relative.
The first studies of Neanderthal DNA focused on the genetic sequences of mitochondria, the microscopic organelles that convert food to energy within cells. In 2005, however, 454 began a collaborative project with the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, to sequence the full genetic code of a Neanderthal woman who died in Croatia's Vindija cave 30,000 years ago. As the Neanderthal genome is painstakingly sequenced, the archaeologists and biologists who study it will be faced with an opportunity that seemed like science fiction just 10 years ago. They will be able to look at the genetic blueprint of humankind's nearest relative and understand its biology as intimately as our own.
In addition to giving scientists the ability to answer questions about Neanderthals' relationship to our own species--did we interbreed, are we separate species, who was smarter--the Neanderthal genome may be useful in researching medical treatments. Newly developed techniques could make cloning Neanderthal cells or body parts a reality within a few years. The ability to use the genes of extinct hominins is going to force the field of paleoanthropology into some unfamiliar ethical territory. There are still technical obstacles, but soon it could be possible to use that long-extinct genome to safely create a healthy, living Neanderthal clone. Should it be done?
Although most of the Neanderthal genome sequencing is now being done by the San Diego-based company Illumina, the Max Planck Institute initially chose 454 because it had come up with a way to read hundreds of thousands of DNA sequences at a time. Genome-sequencing technology is advancing at a rate comparable to computer processing power. "Six years ago if you wanted to sequence E. coli [a species of bacteria], which is about 4 million base-pairs in length, it would have taken one or maybe two million dollars, and it would have taken a year and 150 people," says Jarvie. "Nowadays, one person can do it in two days and it would cost a few hundred dollars."
Putting the fragments themselves in order can be a little tricky. "At first glance, it's just this completely random assemblage of As, Ts, Cs, and Gs," says Irzyk. "But it turns out there are patterns and motifs, and sometimes these are very specific to a group of organisms." For the Neanderthal sample, the human and chimpanzee genomes were used as references for checking the sequence.

The 50,000-year-old skull of a Neanderthal from the site of Shanidar in Iran (top) has a prominent browridge and more projecting face than the 40,000-year-old Homo sapiens skull found at Pestera cu Oase in Romania. (Erik Trinkaus). From Archaeology magazine.

Working with ancient DNA can be much more problematic than sequencing genetic material from living species. Within hours of death, cells begin to break down in a process called apoptosis. The dying cells release enzymes that chop up DNA into tiny pieces. In a human cell, this means that the entire three-billion-base-pair genome is reduced to fragments a few hundred base-pairs long or shorter. The DNA also goes through chemical changes that alter the nucleotides as it ages--C changes into T, and G turns into A--which can cause the gene sequence to be interpreted incorrectly. In the case of the Neanderthal sample, somewhere between 90 and 99 percent of the DNA came from bacteria and other contaminants that had found their way into the bone as it sat in the ground and in storage. The contaminant DNA has to be identified and eliminated. Given the similarity between Neanderthal and modern human DNA, this can be especially difficult when the contamination comes from the people who excavated or analyzed the bone.
Schuster sequenced the mammoth genome in 2007, and that approach might work for large animals, but taking five samples from a single Neanderthal would require the destruction of a large amount of valuable bone. 
According to Schuster and Lalueza-Fox, the cellular damage that occurs after death makes it impossible to understand Neanderthal gene expression. This could mean that making a clone identical to someone who lived 30,000 years ago is impossible.
One way to get around the problems of working with an artificial genome would be to alter the DNA inside a living cell. This kind of genetic engineering can already be done, but very few changes can be made at one time. To clone a Neanderthal, thousands or possibly millions of changes would have to be made to a human cell's DNA. George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, is part of a research team that is developing a technique to make hundreds of alterations to a genome at the same time. 
Church believes the place to start with Neanderthal cloning is on the cellular level, creating liver, pancreas, or brain cells. "You can't really tell anything from just looking at the gene sequence," he says. "It's hard to predict physical traits; you have to test them in living cells." Neanderthal cells could be important for discovering treatments to diseases that are largely human-specific, such as HIV, polio, and smallpox, he says. If Neanderthals are sufficiently different from modern humans, they may have a genetic immunity to these diseases. 
The number of sick and dead individuals produced by nuclear transfer cloning is the reason nearly all scientists are opposed to human reproductive cloning. But even if nuclear transfer cloning could be perfected in humans or Neanderthals, it would likely require a horrifying period of trial and error. 
The best way to clone Neanderthals may be to create stem cells that have their DNA. In recent years, geneticists have learned how to take skin cells and return them to a state called pluripotency, where they can become almost any type of cell in the human body. Church proposes to use the MAGE technique to alter a stem cell's DNA to match the Neanderthal genome. That stem cell would be left to reproduce, creating a colony of cells that could be programmed to become any type of cell that existed in the Neanderthal's body. Colonies of heart, brain, and liver cells, or possibly entire organs, could be grown for research purposes.
This technique could also be used to create a person. A stem cell with Neanderthal DNA could be implanted in a human blastocyst--a cluster of cells in the process of developing into an embryo. Then, all of the non-Neanderthal cells could be kept from growing. The individual who developed from that blastocyst would be entirely the result of Neanderthal genes. In effect, it would be a cloned Neanderthal. Church believes that after the earliest stages of development, the genes would express themselves as they did in the original individual, eliminating any influences from the modern human or chimpanzee cell.
The technique is new, and has only been tested in mice so far, but Church thinks it might work in humans. However, he points out that anyone cloned by this process would still be lacking the environmental and cultural factors that would have influenced how the original Neanderthals grew up. "They would be something new," Church says, "neo-Neanderthals."
Clones created from a genome that is more than 30,000 years old will not have immunity to a wide variety of diseases, some of which would likely be fatal. They will be lactose intolerant, have difficulty metabolizing alcohol, be prone to developing Alzheimer's disease, and maybe most importantly, will have brains different from modern people's.
Bernard Rollin, a bioethicist and professor of philosophy at Colorado State University, doesn't believe that creating a Neanderthal clone would be an ethical problem in and of itself. The problem lies in how that individual would be treated by others. "I don't think it is fair to put people...into a circumstance where they are going to be mocked and possibly feared," he says, "and this is equally important, it's not going to have a peer group. Given that humans are at some level social beings, it would be grossly unfair." The sentiment was echoed by Stringer, "You would be bringing this Neanderthal back into a world it did not belong to....It doesn't have its home environment anymore."
There were no cities when the Neanderthals went extinct, and at their population's peak there may have only been 10,000 of them spread across Europe. A cloned Neanderthal might be missing the genetic adaptations we have evolved to cope with the world's greater population density, whatever those adaptations might be. But, not everyone agrees that Neanderthals were so different from modern humans that they would automatically be shunned as outcasts.
"I think there would be no question that if you cloned a Neanderthal, that individual would be recognized as having human rights under the Constitution and international treaties," says Lori Andrews, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law. 
Legal precedent in the United States seems to be on the side of Neanderthal human rights. In 1997, Stuart Newman, a biology professor at New York Medical School attempted to patent the genome of a chimpanzee-human hybrid as a means of preventing anyone from creating such a creature. The patent office, however, turned down his application on the basis that it would violate the Constitution's 13th amendment prohibition against slavery. Andrews believes the patent office's ruling shows the law recognizes that an individual with a half-chimpanzee and half-human genome would deserve human rights. 
"If we could really do it and we know we are doing it right, I'm actually for it," says Lahn. "Not to understate the problem of that person living in an environment where they might not fit in. So, if we could also create their habitat and create a bunch of them, that would be a different story."

Excavators in Spain's El Sidrön cave wear "clean-room" suits to keep their DNA from contaminating Neanderthal bones. (Courtesy Carles Lalueza-Fox). From Archaeology magazine.

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