Researcher Pumps Brakes on Notion of Cloning Neanderthals

Despite being technically possible, a Harvard researcher says we're unlikely to clone Neanderthals soon.

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The Internet began buzzing with thoughts of a "Paleolithic Park" and the return of cavemen after a leading Harvard University geneticist told Der Spiegel that, with the help of an "extremely adventurous female human," Neanderthals could be brought back from extinction.

In the interview with the German magazine, George Church was careful to couch his comments and was asked to speak hypothetically, saying his job was to "determine what's technologically feasible," not to decide if cloning a long-extinct humanoid species would be a good idea.

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"The first thing you have to do is to sequence the Neanderthal genome, and that has actually been done. The next step would be to chop this genome up into, say, 10,000 chunks and then synthesize these. Finally, you would introduce these chunks into a human stem cell … which would enable you to finally create a Neanderthal clone," he explained.

That's where the "extremely adventurous female human" would come in, as any Neanderthal baby would need a human surrogate.

"However, the prerequisite would, of course, be that human cloning is acceptable to society," he said.

Neanderthals are believed to have become extinct approximately 30,000 years ago and likely coexisted with humans. They had skulls that are slightly larger than modern humans and are believed to have used their own language.

A reconstructed Neanderthal skeleton and a modern human version of a skeleton are on display at the Museum of Natural History in New York.

Church said ideally, researchers would clone several Neanderthals to be able to study the species' behavior.

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"You would certainly have to create a cohort, so they would have some sense of identity," he said. "They could maybe even create a new neo-Neanderthal culture and become a political force."

While Church didn't lobby directly for trying to clone Neanderthals, his comments understandably started a media firestorm as some dismissed him as a "mad scientist" and others thought Church was actively looking to create a Neanderthal from scratch. In a Boston Herald story posted Tuesday, Church said "the real story here is how these [media reports] have percolated and changed in different ways."

"I'm certainly not advocating [creating Neanderthals]," he said. "I'm saying, if it is technically possible someday, we need to start talking about it today."

Reached by U.S. News, Church says that the "Herald story gets it absolutely right."

"There have been a lot of media reports that have just taken what I said and got it completely wrong," he says.

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