By Michael Lindemann
(March 1, 1997) -- In the news business, most weeks don't deliver any really huge stories. Very few weeks deliver more than one. From the CNI News perspective, last week delivered two, making it quite a week.
Unless you've been in a cave for the last ten days or so, you will have heard about both of these stories already. Even so, we think they deserve mention in CNI News because they do relate, at least tangentially, to the issues customarily addressed here -- and they both bear stark witness to the mystery and fragility of the human future.
The first of these stories involved the announcement of positive evidence that a huge asteroid hit the earth 65 million years ago, destroying not only the dinosaurs, but the majority of all life on the planet at that time.
"In my view, this is the most significant discovery in geosciences in 20 years," said Robert W. Corell, assistant director for Geosciences of the National Science Foundation. "This gives us the facts of what happened to life back then. I would certainly call it the smoking gun."
The second story concerns the cloning of a mammal from adult cell material. Quite properly, this story dominated headlines for several days after its first announcement on February 23, and repercussions have been felt around the world.
ASTEROID STRIKE -- EVIDENCE AND IMPLICATIONS
The theory that an asteroid strike caused a mass extinction has been around, and slowly gaining favor, since 1980, when geologist Walter Alvarez showed that traces of the element iridium were present all over the world in the thin stratum of rock known as the Cretaceous-Tertiary (also called K-T) Boundary. That distinctive stratum, 65 million years old, seemed to have been laid down as sediment all at once -- as if it rained from the sky -- and its iridium content was orders of magnitude higher than the strata above and below it. Iridium, Alvarez said, was a marker of an asteroid event.
But to have spread all over the world, the asteroid would have had to be big enough to cause a global cloud of debris. That cloud may have blotted out the sun for years. Almost all life would have frozen or starved. Meanwhile, the airborn debris would have slowly fallen to earth, blanketing everything -- the sediment of the K-T Boundary.
Despite the evidence, many experts dismissed this scenario as farfetched. But in 1989, scientists found evidence of a huge impact crater north of Chicxulub, on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Later studies found evidence of debris washed out of the Gulf by waves that went inland as far as what is now Arkansas.
And now researchers say they have found "the smoking gun" -- proof that the asteroid strike did occur. On February 16, 1997, Richard D. Norris, leader of an international ocean drilling expedition working off the east coast of Florida, said that three drill samples provide "proof positive of the impact."
Norris said he surmised that the violence of an impact near the Yucatan, followed by huge waves, would have roiled the Gulf of Mexico so much that the area was unlikely to have clear sediment layers dating to the dinosaur era. But he theorized that waves from the impact would have washed completely across Florida, depositing debris in the Atlantic. That is where he found his evidence.
Ironically, we humans probably have that asteroid to thank for our very existence on earth today. The dinosaurs had utterly dominated life on earth for about 140 million years and were still rapidly evolving when they were suddenly cut down. Tiny, primitive mammals managed to survive the K-T cataclysm, and when the dust cleared, they had no serious competitors at the top of the food chain. The rest, as they say, is history -- including OUR history.
But what about next time?
Little more than a year ago, a new project called NEAT (Near Earth Asteroid Tracking) in Hawaii became the world's first full-time, dedicated telescopic search for earth-crossing space objects. NEAT scientists have been stunned by the number of objects they're finding. Since late 1995, about 9,000 objects have been tracked, half of them never seen before. None of these objects is expected to collide with the earth in the foreseeable future. But experts agree that tens of thousands of other objects, including potential planet-killers, have not yet been spotted.
There is no question that human civilization is completely unprepared to respond to the sudden discovery of a large incoming asteroid or comet. Examples from the recent past, such as the object which passed within 280,000 miles of the earth in May of 1996, show that we might have as little as a few days warning before impact. But even with a year's warning, it is not clear what could be done, unless development of response mechanisms begins today. It has been pointed out that all the people currently employed in tracking earth-crossing space objects would not be enough to staff one McDonald's restaurant. This seems inadequate.
The technological challenges associated with tracking and, if necessary, destroying or deflecting an incoming asteroid should, we think, inspire the highest level of international cooperation. Clearly, no one is exempt from the consequences of a strike.
Addressing this problem may have a large upside, even if the strike never comes. International cooperation on behalf of planetary well-being has merit in any event. Meanwhile, the search effort is bound to result in unexpected and valuable discoveries, and the push to develop appropriate responses could spur many technical advances applicable to humankind's wider goals in space.
CLONING AN ADULT MAMMAL -- "BRAVE NEW WORLD"?
Big as the asteroid story may be, it seems somehow simple and far away compared with the other big story of recent days.
A group headed by Dr. Ian Wilmut, a 52-year-old embryologist at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland, announced the creation of a lamb using DNA from an adult sheep. Their achievement shocked leading researchers who had said it could not be done, and set off a firestorm of controversy over the ethics and legalities of cloning.
As the Washington Post stated in a February 26 editorial: "If an early consensus can be said to have emerged in the reactions to Dolly the cloned sheep, it's that Dolly's existence and the success of the technique that made her are signals of some profound alteration in the human condition."
Dr. Lee Silver, a biology professor at Princeton University, said the announcement came just in time for him to revise his forthcoming book so the first chapter will no longer state that such cloning is impossible.
"It's unbelievable," Silver said. "It basically means that there are no limits. It means all of science fiction is true. They said it could never be done and now here it is, done before the year 2000."
What Silver and virtually everyone else is concerned about, of course, is not Dolly the sheep, but the looming likelihood that human cloning is suddenly right around the corner.
Perhaps most shocking to some onlookers is the apparent naivete of clonemeister Dr. Wilmut, who seems oblivious to any but the most benign and simplistic outcomes of his research.
"What this will mostly be used for is to produce more health-care products," Wilmut told the Press Association of Britain, according to the Reuters news agency. "It will enable us to study genetic diseases for which there is presently no cure and track down the mechanisms that are involved. The next step is to use the cells in culture in the lab and target genetic changes into that culture."
Similarly obtuse were the comments of Dr. Harold Varmus, director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Proclaiming the idea of human cloning "repugnant," Varmus said most scientists would simply reject such a program as unacceptable. Meanwhile, he said, the new breakthrough in Scotland fails to address any science objective and, as a result, would be of little interest to most researchers.
"It makes interesting movies, but poor science," Varmus said in testimony before a House appropriations subcommittee.
CNI News wonders what planet Dr. Varmus resides on. Not earth, apparently. In any case, the darker implications of mammalian cloning were not lost on other commentators.
"With the world's first cloning of an adult animal... thinking about the unthinkable is now crucial. Because the technology is unpoliceable, there needs to be an intense and worldwide debate about the proper protocols for using the technology," opined the Sydney, Australia Morning Herald. "The area is fraught with ethical and legal time bombs. As Aldous Huxley argued in his polemical novel 'Brave New World,' science that ignores human dignity destroys human and political values."
President Clinton was quick to ask a bioethics advisory commission to review the implications of the technology for humans.
The Vatican immediately called for laws banning human cloning in a news editorial headlined "An urgent appeal to reason and to humanity."
Joseph Rotblat, a scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project and won the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for his later opposition to nuclear arms, called on February 27 for international controls on cloning research.
"A control on science is almost a contradiction in terms," Rotblat said. "But every scientist is first of all a citizen, and the interest of the world community must be paramount."
But who will adhere to the moral high road, and who will follow the lure of power and wealth? It is already clear that cloning can be done under fairly unsophisticated laboratory conditions. There is no question of a virtually limitless market for "spare body parts," "perfect doubles" and "super-soldiers," to name just a few of the horrific but obvious spin-offs of cloning technology.
When will it begin? Probably, right away.
A Reuters news story dated March 1 announced that Britain's Agriculture Ministry has decided to cut funding for the institute in Scotland that produced the cloned sheep. In response, scientists at the Roslin Institute warned that they and their research could be forced into the arms of purely commercial interests.
Grahame Bulfield, director of the institute, said the government action would cut 50 percent of the "Dolly" cloning program this year and 100 percent of the program starting on April 1, 1998.
"My job is to keep the institute going," Bulfield said, adding that he had received "thousands of calls" from the United States, where the interest in genetic engineering and cloning research is strong. "We have to be driven by wherever our customers want to drive us, whether those customers are government or industry," he said. "We live in a real world."
That "real world" just got weirder, murkier and more dangerous, we think.
And other questions are raised by all this as well, not the least of which is this: If an unremarkable embryologist in Scotland can clone an adult mammal today, is it likely that he is really the first to have done it? Is there some very black project somewhere -- quite likely the United States -- where such things have already been done? Rumors to that effect have circulated for years but always sounded, well, a little wacky. But not any more.
Of course, the question of cloning also arises in discussions of alien lifeforms, or even long-term human space travel. Is it now so farfetched to suggest that a space-faring race might find cloning preferable, or even mandatory, for failsafe preservation of the species under the extreme conditions of off-world living? Here at CNI News, we think not.
And so we stare our future in the eye, a future replete with the most outrageous possibilities and unknowns. Stay tuned. This is just the beginning.
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