Tying the Strands of Life

In October, a Massachusetts company, Advanced Cell Technology, set off a storm of controversy when it announced that it had successfully implanted the embryo of a guar, a seriously endangered ox-like animal native to the bamboo forests of India and Burma, in an American cow. The embryo was created from the cells of a guar that had recently died, raising the possibility that modern science can bring extinct animals back from the dead.


But is a clone of a Southeast Asian guar born in a pen in Iowa with a cow mother really a guar? With no bamboo forests in sight, it certainly won't act like one, though it may have the guar's instincts coded into its genetic makeup. As a letter writer to the New York Times pointed out, if the habitat that supported these creatures for thousands of years has disappeared, what's the real point of recreating them?

Many of the same ethical questions arise with the news that the government-sponsored Human Genome Project has completed a rough map of the approximately 100,000 human genes and the sequence of their three billion DNA bases. This is a heroic achievement: It would take more than nine years just to read out loud the bases in a single person's genome sequence. But is it a welcome achievement? The answer is not yet clear, despite some obvious and profound advantages to the new technology.

All diseases have a genetic base, and many—cystic fibrosis, for example, or a tendency to develop heart disease—can be inherited. According to an article in the legal magazine Judicature, some 4,000 rare diseases are caused by a single mutation in a single gene. A better understanding of the DNA/health connection could result in more effective treatments and even outright prevention.

But some of the techniques arising from gene therapy are deeply disturbing to environmentalists. Beyond the obvious concerns about genetically engineered food products already on the market, there is the potentially lucrative transgenic “pharming” of animals to produce human drugs (the main reason for the creation of Scotland's Dolly, the cloned sheep). Nearly as problematic is so-called “xenotransplantation,” the transfer of genetically enhanced animal organs (including hearts and kidneys) into human patients. Such cross-species operations raise the specter of animal viruses leaping the barrier into the human population.

Sally Deneen's cover story in this issue looks further into the future to an era when parents may be able to “design” their children with specific characteristics. The frightening prospect is for a two-track Earth, dominated by an elite corps of super-engineered human beings. Such scenarios, while still a long way off, are no longer pure science fiction.

At presstime, we learned of the passing of Earth champion David Brower. As an editorial advisor to E, Brower provided invaluable counsel and good advice. We loved that he continued to evolve as a person and as an environmentalist, even in his late 80s. It is hardly surprising that no environmental group (he founded four) could contain him. Brower's ultimate allegiance was not to organizations, but to the Earth itself.

—Jim Motavalli