Cloning is a hot topic these days, with impassioned arguments on either side of the issue. What many don’t realize is that cloning is already performed routinely all the time. Not human cloning, but making copies of organisms, cells, or genes. I do it regularly myself. I insert a gene I’m studying into a bacterial cell and let it divide into a whole colony, thus producing thousands of copies of my gene of interest.
One Sunday evening a few months ago after a busy weekend, I probably should have just gone to bed early, but I felt like getting a head start on the week’s work and I headed to the lab to clone. Nevertheless, by eleven pm I may have been getting a bit tired. I had just spread my bacteria on agar petri dishes, using long thin bent glass tubes to wipe the cells across the plates. Sterilization of these tubes involves squirting them with alcohol and passing them through a flame. I placed the last tube in the styrofoam rack, and noted that my vigorous cleansing had left a puddle of alcohol on the lab bench. To get rid of it, I lit the puddle on fire (this is not as foolish as it seems, since burning ethanol on a fireproof lab bench is a common way to quickly sterilize a workspace). Unfortunately, I hadn’t registered that the pool extended to the styrofoam rack, which immediately ignited. I grabbed the rack and blew on it, but the flames spread. I blew twice more to no avail, now rushing across the room, waving the blazing polystyrene block with both hands, splattering small alcohol-fire drops through the air. I then noticed that the latex gloves I was wearing were burning. I dropped the rack, full of the fragile glass tubes, to the floor.
In the past I have walked through the lab without shoes on. I made a mental note not to ever do this again.
The flames were extinguished, the larger glass bits disposed of, and my transgenic bacteria were sent to the incubator to happily grow. Cloning is really quite straightforward. It’d be no trouble at all to slip some more genes into more cells, grow them up, ship them around the world, cover the planet with genetically modified whatever to cure your ill of choice: hunger, disease, extinction. We’re certainly smart enough. The problem is, even smart people do stupid things. Sometimes the cost is but a glass bacteria spreader or two. Other times are called Chernobyl or the Challenger, or, in a more abstract sense, thalidomide or DDT. We crave absolute power, but forget that we lack absolute control. Nothing is wrong with genetic modification, biotechnology, or cloning per se. They are driving our understanding of the universe. What’s wrong is doing these things on a global scale without really knowing what we’re doing, betting lives on the assumption that nothing will fail, building up potential disasters that are only avoidable if all of us act constantly with common sense. I can’t speak for everyone, but that is not something I am able to do.