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EMBRYONIC FARMING: Developing human embryos at day three; Mitalipov.
Embryos: Oregon Health & Science University/AP • Mitalipov: Richard Clement/Reuters/Landov
EMBRYONIC FARMING: Developing human embryos at day three; Mitalipov.

Egos and embryos

Science | Scientists harvest stem cells from cloned human embryos for the first time

Oregon scientists claim to have succeeded in performing two ethically objectionable lab experiments at the same time: creating human clones and embryonic stem cells. California scientists first made clones several years ago, but the Oregon team is the first to keep them alive long enough to extract stem cells—cells that can transform into multiple tissue types. 

Working at the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Ore., the researchers made clones by inserting human skin cells into human eggs whose nuclei had been removed. A jolt of electricity caused these unfortunate Frankencells to begin growing into blastocysts, embryos just a week old. Genetically, each one was an identical twin with the person who donated the skin cell.

The cloned embryos were destroyed during the stem-cell extraction process. Team leader Shoukhrat Mitalipov said their goal was to create embryonic stem cells genetically equivalent to patients, in order to treat disease. 

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The problem is that better lab techniques can create stem cells without destroying embryos: Doctors already use adult stem cells to treat thousands of patients, and induced pluripotent cells—created by manipulating adult skin cells—have properties similar to embryonic stem cells. Most researchers have already switched to using these cheaper, ethically acceptable approaches.

Mitalipov is well-known for previous monkey cloning experiments. “This guy has been trying to do cloning for years and years,” said Family Research Council senior fellow David Prentice, who suspects scientists do such work as an “ego trip.” 

The ego trip in this case caused some embarrassment: A week after the cloning experiments appeared in the online journal Cell in May, a reader found sloppy labeling and image errors. The errors weren’t expected to challenge the overall cloning claims—but they were byproducts of an excited rush to publish. 

License to kill

Konrad Fiedler/Bloomberg via Getty Images

If you want to kill a federally protected bird without consequence, your best bet is to erect a wind turbine. Oil and gas companies pay high fines for killing bald and golden eagles. Yet when wind farms do so, the Obama administration looks the other way.

According to an Associated Press report, the administration has never fined or prosecuted a wind farm for killing eagles or migratory birds, even though turbines kill an estimated 573,000 birds annually in the United States. At their tips, turbine blades can spin as fast as a bullet train and smack birds to the ground before they have a chance to dodge. 

Elsewhere, birds are killed in oil spills and power line electrocutions, and the government is quick to pounce if energy companies haven’t made enough effort to protect wildlife. In 2009, a company that operates power plants in Western states, PacifiCorp, paid over $10.5 million for electrocuting 232 eagles near power lines and substations—$45,000 per bird.

The Obama administration, a strong advocate of wind power, has protected wind farms from prosecution. The farms can receive five-year permits allowing them to kill a certain number of federally protected birds. New rules the administration is considering would allow wind farms to apply for bird kill permits covering 30 years.

Tim Eicher, a former agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told the Associated Press, “What it boils down to is this: If you electrocute an eagle, that is bad, but if you chop it to pieces, that is OK.” —D.J.D.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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