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Prof seeks woman to give birth to Neanderthal? Not exactly

In a much-publicized interview, a Harvard geneticist says he can imagine cloning Neanderthals using genome sequencing. But the interview itself apparently got cloned all wrong.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
  • Third place film critic, 2021 LA Press Club National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards
Chenda Ngak Editor / CBSNews.com
Chenda Ngak is CBSNews.com's Science & Technology Editor.
Leslie Katz
Chenda Ngak
3 min read

As if pulling a storyline from the movie "Jurassic Park," a Harvard University professor says it would be possible to clone the long-extinct Neanderthal. One little hitch is that he'd need a woman willing to carry the offspring.

"Let's hope they'll be able to clone me 30,000 years from now, eh?" Neanderthal Museum

Contrary to a flurry of headlines following his interview with German magazine Der Spiegel, however, Harvard molecular geneticist George Church is not currently taking applications from would-be surrogate moms.

"The real story here is how these stories have percolated and changed in different ways," Church, a well-respected genetics professor at Harvard Medical School, told the Boston Herald following a slew of recent impossible-to-ignore headlines such as "I can create Neanderthal baby, I just need willing woman," and, from the Daily Mail, "Wanted: 'Adventurous woman' to give birth to Neanderthal man - Harvard professor seeks mother for cloned cave baby."

Church's research in the 1980s laid the groundwork for genome sequencing. He also helped initiate the Human Genome Project and co-authored the book "Regenesis," which explores the possibilities, and perils, of synthetic biology, in which living organisms are selectively altered by modifying substantial portions of their genomes. As for hypothetical Neanderthal creation, he told the Boston Herald: "I'm certainly not advocating it. I'm saying, if it is technically possible someday, we need to start talking about it today."

The Neanderthal-baby headlines from the last few days stem from an interview that was originally published in German and appears to have undergone transcription errors in translation. Describing a process in which a Neanderthal clone could be created, Church, 58, told Der Spiegel:

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. If we do that often enough, then we would generate a stem cell line that would get closer and closer to the corresponding sequence of the Neanderthal. We developed the semi-automated procedure required to do that in my lab. Finally, we assemble all the chunks in a human stem cell, which would enable you to finally create a Neanderthal clone.

Church cited two major hurdles: that cloning is illegal in many countries, and the search for an "extremely adventurous female human" to serve as a surrogate mother to carry the fetus of a species that has not existed in tens of thousands of years would likely prove daunting (though possibly less so than the quest for a woman to carry a long-extinct wooly mammoth).

Church said he understands the ethical questions that come with such a proposal, telling Der Spiegel that scientists could not successfully accomplish the experiment until "human cloning is acceptable to society." When asked whether creating a Neanderthal for the sake of scientific curiosity is ethically problematic, Church defended the research, saying that the main goal is to increase diversity.

Church went on to say that a cloned Neanderthal probably would not exist alone in a laboratory, but that scientists would certainly have to "create a cohort" to give the clone a sense of identity.

Cloning a Neanderthal isn't the most outrageous idea Church proposed. The professor envisions a world in which viruses are fought by changing the genetic code of humans. Doing so could make humans resistant to viruses like influenza, measles, or rabies.

Church argues that people shouldn't be scared of the technology as researchers would not take immediate leaps, but should instead use the scenarios as an opportunity to explore the realms of science and ethics. "We are not going to be making a virus-resistant human before we make a virus-resistant cow," Church told Der Spiegel.

In other words, don't start shopping for gifts for that Neanderthal baby shower just yet, folks. However, given that Roger Ebert sees a potential blockbuster in all this, casting directors might want to start compiling their short lists.

Leslie Katz is a staff writer for CNET. Chenda Ngak writes for CBSNews.com.