Sarah Hills from Metro.co.uk reports that the UK scientists have finally succeeded at creating “hybrid embryos that are part-human and part-animal”. In November 2006, a group of scientists from the University of Newcastle applied “for permission to create embryos by combining human DNA with cow eggs. Their research aims to develop new therapies for human ailments such as strokes, Alzheimer’s and tissue damage suffered by spinal trauma victims.” The permission was granted, and now we’re in for a long debate over whether or not this is ethical. Hills explains that “the technique, called nuclear transfer, involves removing the nucleus of a cow egg – which contains most of the genetic information – and replacing it with human DNA. The egg is then encouraged to divide until it is a cluster of cells only a few days old”.
Ah well… Some people compare a “human-cow” to Frankenstein’s monster. For my part, I remember a brilliant novel by Mikhail Bulgakov, The Fateful Eggs (1925), about the ray of light discovered by Ivan Persikov, the Professor of Zoology (Russian text). This is the description of discovery from Chapter III of the novel:
“What had happened was this. When the Professor put his discerning eye to the microscope, he noticed for the first time in his life that one particular ray in the coloured tendril stood out more vividly and boldly than the others. This ray was bright red and stuck out of the tendril like the tiny point of a needle, say.Thus, as ill luck would have it, this ray attracted the attention of the great man’s experienced eye for several seconds.In it, the ray, the Professor detected something a thousand times more significant and important than the ray itself, that precarious offspring accidentally engendered by the movement of a microscope mirror and lens. Due to the assistant calling the Professor away, some amoebas had been subject to the action of the ray for an hour-and-a-half and this is what had happened: whereas the blobs of amoebas on the plate outside the ray simply lay there limp and helpless, some very strange phenomena were taking place on the spot over which the sharp red sword was poised. This strip of red was teeming with life. The old amoebas were forming pseudopodia in a desperate effort to reach the red strip, and when they did they came to life, as if by magic. Some force seemed to breathe life into them. They flocked there, fighting one another for a place in the ray, where the most frantic (there was no other word for it) reproduction was taking place. In defiance of all the laws which Persikov knew like the back of his hand, they gemmated before his eyes with lightning speed. They split into two in the ray, and each of the parts became a new, fresh organism in a couple of seconds. In another second or two these organisms grew to maturity and produced a new generation in their turn. There was soon no room at all in the red strip or on the plate, and inevitably a bitter struggle broke out. The newly born amoebas tore one another to pieces and gobbled the pieces up. Among the newly born lay the corpses of those who had perished in the fight for survival. It was the best and strongest who won. And they were terrifying. Firstly, they were about twice the size of ordinary amoebas and, secondly, they were far more active and aggressive. Their movements were rapid, their pseudopodia much longer than normal, and it would be no exaggeration to say that they used them like an octopus’s tentacles.”
The consequences thereof were frightening and disturbing. But, of course, the whole “human-cow” thing is not at all new, and the consequences are usually monstrous. In the past I mentioned a medieval tale about a lion who fell in love and made love a Parisian woman. In Ancient Greece, however, there was a different story. I quote from Pseudo-Appollodorus (from Theoi.com):
“Minos aspired to the throne [of Krete], but was rebuffed. He claimed, however, that he had received the sovereignty from the gods, and to prove it he said that whatever he prayed for would come about. So while sacrificing to Poseidon, he prayed for a bull to appear from the depths of the sea, and promised to sacrifice it upon its appearance. And Poseidon did send up to him a splendid bull. Thus Minos received the rule, but he sent the bull to his herds and sacrificed another . . .
Poseidon was angry that the bull was not sacrificed, and turned it wild. He also devised that Pasiphae should develop a lust for it. In her passion for the bull she took on as her accomplice an architect named Daidalos . . . He built a woden cow on wheels, . . . skinned a real cow, and sewed the contraption into the skin, and then, after placing Pasiphae inside, set it in a meadow where the bull normally grazed. The bull came up and had intercourse with it, as if with a real cow. Pasiphae gave birth to Asterios, who was called Minotauros. He had the face of a bull, but was otherwise human. Minos, following certain oracular instructions, kept him confined and under guard in the labyrinth. This labyrinth, which Daidalos built, was a “cage with convoluted flextions that disorders debouchment.”
Minotaur was widely commemorated in art, as you can see in the post (all images are courtesy of Theoi.com). The rest of the story goes along the lines of a heroic myth, with Theseus eventually arriving to Knossos and killing Minotaur. It is only the beginning of human-cow cloning, but who knows: the Greek myth may turn out to be more realistic and prophetic than we have ever thought.
Information about images (from left to right, clockwise):
Theseus and the Minotauros. Attributed to Leagros Group or to Group of Vatican 424. C6th BC. Museo Gregoriano Etrusco Vaticano, Vatican City.
Theseus and the Minotauros. Attributed to Apollodoros. ca 525 – 475 BC. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, United Kingdom.
Theseus and the Minotauros. Floor Mosaic. C2nd – C3rd AD. Universität Fribourg Bibliothek, Fribourg, Switzerland.