Brave New World

Everything you wanted to know about stem cells, cloning and genetic engineering but were afraid to ask

Endothelial cells under the microscope
Endothelial cells under the microscope Wikimedia Commons

In the past 30 years, particularly in the past few, science has made enormous strides in the fields of molecular and cellular biology. Researchers have learned how to manipulate genes in plants and animals, and to a much lesser extent, in humans. In 2000, scientists from the public and private sectors co-announced that they'd sequenced the human genome, the arrangement of our DNA's fundamental components.

We've long been able to create life outside the womb, through in vitro fertilization (IVF); as a result, we can now screen embryos for many diseases. And in the past few years, scientists have managed to isolate from IVF embryos those "embryonic stem cells," so much in the news of late, that have the potential to develop into any cell in the body.

If that isn't enough, on the heels of decades of work in animal cloning—most notably the birth of Dolly, the first clone of a mammal from an adult cell, in 1996—three scientists announced this spring that they each, separately, intended to clone humans in their private labs.

None of these advances—or the suggestion of future advances—has come without controversy. Their promise, and peril, suggests author James Trefil, lie in their ability to let us get under the hood of living systems and change the way they operate. The debates that surround them raise questions "not only about changes in science and medicine but about such profound issues as the nature and value of human life." This article is a primer in the brave new world of biotech, a guide to the developments over the past few decades that have brought us to this point. As Trefil points out, "only by understanding the science involved can we begin to address the ethical conundrums coming our way."

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