A dystopian society supported by genetically modified clone workers stands out among the six stories that make up the sprawling film "Cloud Atlas." The idea may seem far-fetched because of political opposition to human cloning and genetic modification in today's world, but the science is closer than many people may think.
The "Cloud Atlas" story focuses on a genetically-engineered "fabricant" clone named Sonmi~451 who is one of millions raised in an artificial "wombtank," destined to serve from birth. Such fabricants do practically every kind of manual or service labor, work as soldiers and prostitutes, and even act as "living doll" toys for "pureblood" kids in the futuristic society of Nea So Copros — an ultra-corporate version of a unified Korea that has grown to include much of Asia.
"Of course, any technology could be abused, but a nightmarish 'Cloud Atlas' future would not flow inexorably from the deployment of human germline genetic modification," said Kevin Smith, a bioethicist at Abertay University in the UK.
Such genetic modification of the germline — the genetic material in eggs or sperm — already works in some animals. Researchers have made genetically modified animals and clones such as cloned pet dogs and gene-tweaked mice tailored to sniff out landmines. By comparison, similar research in humans has focused on cloning embryos to extract embryonic stem cells that could prove medically useful.
But the reality of safe, effective genetic modification of humans seems likely to come true in the "relatively near future", Smith and his colleagues wrote in the October issue of the journal Archives of Medical Research. They also argue that the technology’s possible benefits for humanity should prevent countries from automatically passing bans or heavy restrictions on such emerging technologies.
From cloning to gene modification
The "Cloud Atlas" film, based on a novel by David Mitchell, tells the story of Sonmi~451 slowly awakening to the industrialized horror of a future society, one that treats genetically modified clones like robots that don't have feelings or deserve human rights.
"The scenario of multiple, identical copies of people is something that the media tend to latch on to, while missing [the technology's] real potential, i.e. genetic modification," Smith told TechNewsDaily. "Nevertheless, in science fiction the notion of identical clones does occur, and I cannot rule it out on technical grounds."
Modern cloning has much more modest goals. Researchers can remove the DNA from unfertilized eggs and replace it with a nucleus containing the DNA they want to clone. Scientist have used this method, called nuclear transfer, to create cloned animals such as Dolly the sheep. It represents the oldest of three scientific breakthroughs that could eventually lead to safe, effective genetic modification, Smith said. [ Quiz: Sci-Fi vs. Real Technology ]
"In terms of a relationship between cloning and genetic engineering, there is obvious overlap between the two fields," Smith explained. "Specifically, in relation to human germline genetic modification, cloning provides a powerful set of tools that, if certain technical improvements are forthcoming, could enable gene targeting [that disrupts or mutates a gene sequence]."
A second breakthrough has been the ability to make artificial eggs or sperm from stem cells, either embryonic or adult stem cells that can develop into different cell types in the human body. The third breakthrough involves "designer" recombinase molecules that have the ability to break apart and reassemble DNA strands. Each technology could eventually help scientists make genetic modifications to a living organism's genome.
Such genetic modification could someday remove the threat of genetic disorders passed from parents to children, boost genetic protection against diseases such as cancer or perhaps even boost cognitive abilities in the brains of human offspring, Smith said.
Growing in artificial wombs
The idea of genetically modified humans living healthier lives may not appease those who fear the "Cloud Atlas" vision of mass-manufactured clone workers. Luckily for them, the science fiction idea of growing humans in artificial wombs may take far longer to realize than human genetic modification.
Researchers have already tried implanting mouse embryos in a 3D, artificial structure without success, and have kept goat fetuses alive for up to 9 days in an artificial amniotic pouch. One U.S. experiment even implanted human embryos, left over from in-vitro fertilization labs, in artificial wombs, but had to stop after six days to comply with regulations.
Still, these efforts represent a far cry from creating an artificial womb. One of the biggest challenges comes from recreating the placenta that helps transmit nutrients and oxygen from the mother to the growing human fetus. [ 10 Profound Innovations Ahead ]
"The placenta interacts both with the maternal and the fetal environment," said Pascale Chavatte-Palmer, a veterinarian who specializes in developmental biology and reproduction at the National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) in France. "Creating an artificial placenta would be the biggest technical challenge."
Such research on artificial wombs and "ectogenesis" remains limited because it has not received much funding, Chavatte-Palmer said in an email. She recently reviewed the state of the field in the October issue of the journal Gynecologie Obstetrique & Fertilite.
Facing the brave new world
If Smith's assessment is correct, the world will have to face the ethical and legal questions surrounding genetically modified humans and clones sooner rather than later. Smart regulations can help society avoid a "Cloud Atlas" scenario, while maintaining the potential for benefits to human health and enhancement, Smith said.
But Smith recognized that societal worries about genetic modification could present an added challenge. He pointed to the way "anti-scientific elements" in Europe have swayed public opinion against genetically modified crops, despite the huge benefits such crops could deliver.
"As technological developments make human germline genetic modification (HGGM) increasingly possible, I anticipate that these opponents of genetic modification, whom I would classify as neo-Luddites, will work even harder to capitalize upon instinctive fears — perhaps of nightmare scenarios such as [those] described in ‘Cloud Atlas' — in order to turn public opinion against HGGM," Smith said.
In any case, a genetically modified human or clone will still have to grow in the womb of a human mother, rather than in the goo of an artificial womb. That futuristic technology will likely remain limited to stories such as "Cloud Atlas."
"I don't think it will be possible for a very, very long time," Chavatte-Palmer said.