[FOUNTAIN]Pushing the ethical envelope

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[FOUNTAIN]Pushing the ethical envelope

"Les Animaux Denatures" ("You Shall Know Them") by the French writer and illustrator, Jean Bruller (1902-1991), shocks readers. In the novel, published in 1953, an anthropologist happens to meet a very odd tribe during his travels in Africa. In the book, it is difficult to judge whether the tribe is human beings or apes. To judge, the anthropologist marries a "female" in the tribe and becomes the father of a hybrid child. But he finally kills the baby. The case goes to court, bringing about hot controversy on whether the killing is a homicide or not. The novel confronts the issue of whether laws can define nature.

Biological studies, especially genetics, have gone through ups and downs due to moral and technological problems. Following the genetic studies on peas by Gregor J. Mendel (1822-1884), scientists turned their eyes to fruit flies. They dismembered them for genetic analysis. A new generation of flies appears every 12th day. Scientists can observe 30 generations of flies in one year. Scientists were excited over the discoveries they made from studying the genes of the fruit fly. The analysis of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, has led to even more surprising results.

For example, when scientists injected genes of a mouse into a mutant fruit fly, the injected genes functioned perfectly in the body of the fruit fly, replacing the normal genes. Two years ago, a biotechnology firm in California placed human stem cells in the brain of a mouse. Around the same time, Nature, the British weekly journal of science, carried a paper, which said that mice, after monkeys, were genetically closest to humans. Do humans and animals have a common ancestor? Where are the boundaries between humans and animals?

According to research published recently by Nature, the genes of humans and mice are 99 percent identical. Laboratories of Stanford University are developing a new breed of supermouse. Human brain cells related to the expression of emotion and communications were injected into the brain of the mouse. The aim of the project is to devise a tiny model for the study of inveterate human diseases such as stroke and Alzheimer's. But an independent bioethics committee composed of the university's professors of law, is debating whether the study of a supermouse is really necessary. Whether the panel will judge that ethics can be compromised to treat human disease is attracting global attention

The writer is a JoongAng Ilbo editorial writer.

by Choi Chul-joo

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