Science Channel - InSCIder

19 Jun

Are Animal-Human Hybrids Really a Menace?

Human-animal-hybrids-250x150I got a big bump in page-views and reader comments back in 2007 when I wrote this blog post about then-President George W. Bush's call for Congress to outlaw animal-human hybrids, which made him sound worried that some real-life version of H.G. Wells' fictional Dr. Moreau might create a freakish race of furry, cloven-footed parahumans.  Actually, Bush, who banned the harvesting of stem cells from leftover embryos at fertility clinics for medical research, didn't want scientists to get around his prohibition by inserting human genes into animal egs to create human-like embryos. But the President's terminology was so tortured that it inspired a ROFL-fest across the web-o-sphere, including a Cafe Press vendor who quickly began offering t-shirts and coffee cups emblazoned with a knuckle-walking man-monkey. And indeed, British opponens of stem-cell research apparently took this idea seriously. They actually proposed requiring stem-cell researchers to implant any human-animal embryos they created into women, so they could be carried to term and born, presumably to wreak revenge upon the evil madmen who spawned them. Alas, that didn't come to pass, because it would have made a great premise for a reality TV show.  And society certainly needs more of those.

So of course, I'm thrilled that another politician is now sounding the alarm over the possible rise of animal-human hybrids. In Mississippi, legislator Rep. William "Tracy" Arnold has introduced a The Protection of the Person Act, which would ban the creation of "a human embryo into which a nonhuman cell or a component of a nonhuman cell is introduced, so that it is uncertain whether the human embryo is a member of the species homo sapiens."

Additionally, the law would bar any attempt to implant a nonhuman embryo into a human womb, in the remote event that anyone in Mississippi has the desire to give birth to, say, a cute little rhesus monkey.  Of course, since we humans diverged from our nearest ape ancestors millions of years ago, it's likely that post-zygotic reproductive isolating mechanisms would put the kibosh on inter-species maternity, anyway. (For more details, here's a fascinating 2006 Slate article on why humans would have a difficult time interbreeding with animals.)

An article in the Clarion-Ledger, a local newspaper, made light of the proposed bill, warning that it didn't do enough--"it would not outlaw freak accidents in which, say, you were bitten by a radioactive spider and later developed spider-like qualities." There was also grumbling that it might outlaw the Animorphs, the protagonists of a series of popular children's books. But the author of the bill, which also seeks to restrict abortion and multiple implantation of embryos in fertility clinics, warned that the threat was real. 

It's getting a lot of attention. I think the attention actually has moved to a sci-fi type of thing, but really the goal of this is to protect those embryos.

He's not the only one who remains concerned. Arizona and Louisiana already have passed laws banning animal-human hybrids, and Ohio legislators last year introduced a bill that would have punished anyone creating a human-animal hybrid with up to five years in jail and a $1 million fine. Federal legislation was proposed in 2009, but it never got out of the Judiciary Committee. And the conspiracy-theorist website InfoWars got pretty worked up about it in this 2011 article, charging that "crazed scientists all over the globe are playing god with the very building blocks of life" and that unless something is done to stop them, "genetic hell will be unleashed on the human race."

Or not. What alarms some is to others a potential tool for developing cures for diseases. As 2011 article from The Scientist details, research involving inserting human DNA, cells, or tissues in animals has been going on for nearly 50 years. Mice with human liver and immune system cells are being used to search for cancer treatments, and goats with a human gene already are used to produce a protein that helps surgery patients whose blood doesn't clot properly. Here's a 2012 Discovery News article on 10 ways that scientists are using animal-human hybrids.

So what do you think? Express your opinion below.

Image Credit: CMSP/Getty Imgaes

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