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October 8, 2006

Scientists are moving forward with plans to create hybrid human and rabbit embryos. This was the news three days ago from the U.K., where three teams of researchers were seeking to gain approval from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to create embryos that are 99.9 per cent human and 0.1 per cent rabbit. They are also looking into the possibility of blending genes from humans and cows to create chimeras.

A chimera (pronounced keye-MARE-ah), from Greek mythology, was “a monstrous creature made of the parts of multiple animals” (def. from Wikipedia). The thing had the head of a lion, but the body of a goat, and a snake for its tail. This fire-breathing beast had to be detroyed by the hero Bellerophon, with the help of Pegasus, the winged-horse.

In biology, the word ‘chimera’ describes an animal that can (rarely) occur naturally, with the blending of genetic material from two or more different embryos. However, science can now produce animal chimeras in the laboratory from two completely different species. For example, in 1984 a geep was produced by combining embryos from a goat and a sheep.

The U.K. proposal is really not all that new, inasmuch as rabbit/human chimeras have already been produced in China in 2003, though not allowed to divide for more than a few days. The new wrinkle is to use such hybrids as a source of stem cells for medical research. The embryos would be mostly human, but would contain some animal genes. They hope to provide a new source of stem cells “without the ethical problems of tampering with human life.”

How does that work? Scientists hope to justify destructive human embryo research by adding in a few bunny genes? Is that ethically an improvement? Does that honor human nature?

If such ideas make you uncomfortable, it’s because of the inherent “yuck factor.” We have a natural revulsion to mixing our genes with animals. Leon Kass has written that such reactions are a form of wisdom: “Repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it.”

Call it instinct, intuition, or natural law, this is scary stuff.

U.K. news article: http://news.scotsman.com/topics.cfm?tid=10&id=1477452006

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