20 Years After Dolly, The Temptation To Clone Humans

Though the technology now exists to clone humans, and mercenaries are at the ready if allowed, most of the mainstream geneticist community points to other ways to get life-saving stem cells.

Exhibition in Tokyo, Japan
Exhibition in Tokyo, Japan
Yann Verdo

PARIS â€" It's been almost 20 years since the work of Scottish scientists Ian Wilmut and Keith Campbell led to the birth of Dolly the sheep, the world's first cloned mammal. News of the breakthrough rippled like a shockwave, provoking both enthusiasm and outrage. The biggest concern? That we might do the same with humans.

The European Council hastened to amend its Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Dignity of the Human Being with regard to the Application of Biology and Medicine, prohibiting "any intervention seeking to create a human being genetically identical to another human being alive or dead."

In the two decades that followed, many other mammals were conceived through cloning, to such an extent that the South Korean company Sooam, created in 2006, now offers wealthy dog owners the chance to clone their pets after their deaths â€" for $100,000.

But humans themselves seemed sheltered from it, until now. Not so much because of ethical reasons, but because of technical ones. Geneticists hit a brick wall every time they tried to make such a "nuclear transfer" into a human being.

Their goal was not for a human Dolly to be born, which was forbidden all over the world after Wilmut and Campbell's experiment, but to obtain embryos that they'd allow to develop in vitro for a few days so they could be turned into stem-cell reserves. This so-called "therapeutic" cloning, authorized in various countries (Britain, United States, Japan, South Korea, etc. but not France) seemed out of reach for laboratories.

What was once impossible ...

That's no longer the case. A few weeks ago, Chinese doctor Xu Xiaochun said some things that would send shivers down anybody's spine. He is CEO of Boyalife, a company that has invested $31 million in a Tianjin factory to produce 100,000 cloned cattle embryos per year to meet Chinese demand. "The technology is already there," Xu said. "If human cloning is allowed, I don't think any other company will be in a better position than Boyalife to make it happen."

He didn't stop there. "Unfortunately," he continued, "the only way to have a child currently is to have it be half its mom, half its dad. Maybe in the future you have three choices instead of one. You either have 50-50, or you have a choice of having the genetics 100% from the dad or 100% from the mom."


Strangely, Xiaochun's words went relatively unnoticed, as did a 2013 report by an American geneticist named Shoukhrat Mitalipov, from the University of Oregon, who succeeded in obtaining a human embryo through cloning that he allowed to develop in vitro for six days (until the blastocyst stage) before taking stem cells from it. His experiment was successfully reproduced a year later by two other teams.

Dolly, cloned ... then taxidermied â€" Photo: Mike Pennington/National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh

One of the "tricks" that made this result possible was immersing the ovum in a bath of caffeine, which is indeed believed to block the cell-division process in a phase that increases the chances of a successful cloning.

The unknown

Nobody knows for sure what would have become of these human embryos had they been implanted inside a surrogate mother â€" whether they would have developed with abnormalities, resulted in miscarriage or made it to term but with mental or physical disabilities. Or, like Dolly, would they have become perfectly "healthy" newborns, with the caveat of having the same genetic makeup as another human being?

Despite the chilling, if not entirely groundless statements (the technology does exist) of Chinese entrepreneurs, the geneticist community doesn't seem to show great interest in the recent experiments of Shoukhrat Mitalipov and his followers.

Alain Fischer, a professor at the College of France and founding member of the genetic disease institute Imagine, brushes the issue aside with a sweep of his hand. "This whole issue has been null and void since the discovery of iPS cells," he says.

Developed in 2006 by Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka (who was awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize), iPS cells have revolutionized cellular therapy, which had been confined to embryonic stem cells. Now that there's another way that is technically simpler and ethically preferable to obtain stem cells, why bother creating embryos through cloning? Especially since supernumerary embryos are in large supply.

Hervé Chneiweiss, of the French Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM), says 170,000 of them are currently kept frozen in France alone, "more than enough to cover the population's needs in terms of embryonic stem cells."

But Chneiweiss believes human cloning enthusiasts aren't so much targeting ill people as the larger and more lucrative market of women who want to bear children at an older age â€" for example, after they've had a good career start. As they get older, they become less and less fertile. If they haven't found a partner by the time they could still give birth, Mitalipov's technique would allow them to have a nucleus sampled that could later be transferred into the oocyte of a younger woman.

This is also the opinion of Arnold Munnich, co-director of Imagine with Alain Fischer, who stresses how much he disapproves of colleagues who are pursuing human cloning. "People are waiting for us cure their children, or at least to find out what they're suffering from," he says before taking a dig at Mitalipov. "They don't concern themselves with the flights of fancy of Oregon-based researchers."

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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