William Doonan

I write books and stories.

MedicineLand: Chapter Seven

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“Last week we finished talking about cloning,” Julia began, as her students opened their notebooks and wrapped up the pre-class chitchat.  “Cloning is a popular topic these days, but it’s old news.  Way back in 1997, a Scottish team led by Dr. Ian Wilmut cloned the first mammal, a sheep named Dolly.  What does that have to do with the subject of this course?”

Hands shot up.

“No hands,” Julia reminded them.  “Just talk.”

“It means we don’t have to worry about running out of sheep,” suggested the blonde girl by the door.

“This much is true.”  Julia tried to remember the girl’s name.

“It means it’s now theoretically possible to clone humans,” came a voice from the back of the room.

“It’s always been theoretically possible,” Julia corrected.  “It means that now it is possible.”

“It means we don’t need any more men,” added Alice Yee, one of the brighter grad students.

“Why?”

“A woman who wanted to clone herself could use her own DNA, her own egg, and her own womb,” she answered.  “Men would become superfluous.”

“That’s cold,” said Robby Boaz, a chemistry student who had jumped ship to work with Julia.  “But once you walk down that road, there’s no going back.  If a generation of women clone themselves and no one reproduces the old fashioned way, then there would be no men left on earth and no way to get any more, since a clone of a woman can only be a woman.”

“And that’s a problem?” Julia asked

“From the standpoint of natural selection, it’s a death sentence.” Robby noted.

“It might be worth it,” Alice suggested.

“He’s right though.” Julia drew a sperm with a happy face on the blackboard.  “Kathryn, tell me why he’s right.”

Kathryn Mosely was intuitive but painfully shy.  “Sex creates variation, mixing male and female chromosomes each generation.  Variation allows a species to adapt.  If we rely on cloning, we have no new variation, making our species highly susceptible to viral or bacteriological pathogens, and incapable of reacting to any environmental change.”

Julia nodded.  “She’s right.  You’re safe for now, Robby.  No one is getting rid of you just yet.”

Robby grinned.  “Then can I have her phone number?”

Kathryn blushed.

“With cloning, we’d have no more sexual harassment,” Alice offered.

“More to the point then,” Julia asked, “What does cloning have to do with life extension studies?”

“We can grow spare parts,” said someone from the back.  “If I needed a new liver, I could get one cloned.  That way I’d live longer.”

“True.  What else?”

“We could clone ourselves for spares,” Alice added.  “We’d just  grow our own clones in a safe environment and suppress higher brain function so they couldn’t think.  Then if we got in an accident or got old and were about to die, they could chop off our heads and pop them on the clones.”

“Not likely,” said Robby, “you can’t attach severed heads to new bodies.”

“They did it with a gorilla in the seventies,” said the redhead by the window.

Robby shook his head.  “But the gorilla died an hour later.  We can reattach blood vessels but no one can regenerate spinal nerves.  Alice would be a quadriplegic.”

“But a live quadriplegic,” Alice countered.  “And it’s just a matter of time before we can regenerate cervical nerves.”

“So basically,” Julia said, summing up, “cloning does offer promise in terms of life extension.  We have the technology, but it’s not currently legal to clone humans.  Should circumstances change, however, and we were able to suppress higher brain function on the clones, we could essentially do just what Alice said.”

“So when I get to be sixty years old,” Robby began, “I peel off a skin cell and start a clone of myself.  Then by the time I’m eighty, the clone is twenty and I have my head surgically removed and surgically attached to the clone.  I get a little plastic surgery and I’m good for another sixty years.”

“Anybody have any problem with that?” Julia asked.

“What about Alzheimer’s?”

“Then you’re screwed,” said Alice.

“Then you’re screwed,” Julia agreed.  “If you’re brain goes, cloning won’t help you.  So what other options do we have in terms of living significantly longer?”

“Drastically reduce your caloric intake,” Kathryn suggested.  “Studies in mice and rhesus monkeys suggest that if humans take in less than 900 calories a day, their metabolism would react by slowing down and they could live an extra twenty to thirty years.”

“Why would metabolism slow?” Julia asked.

“Because you’d be starving,” said Robby.

“It would be like tricking your body into hibernation,” said the redhead.  “Maybe it’s like some kind of ancestral mammalian response.  Your body would perceive a lack of food and prepare for a season of dietary stress, like when bears go into hibernation.  Maybe our bodies remember how to do that.”

“Bears don’t hibernate,” said Alice.

“They do too,” said the redhead.

Julia shrugged.  “Technically they don’t, but the point is valid.  Maybe it is like hibernation, an adaptive mechanism to avoid starvation.  Body temperature is reduced, heartbeat and breathing rate slow down, and metabolism is relaxed.”

“We’d be sluggish,” Robby suggested.

“We might be a little sluggish,” Julia admitted.

“So is metabolism just like a set quantity?” Kathryn asked.  “Is it something we have just so much of, and when we use it up it’s gone?”

“Technically, yes,” said Julia.   “That’s why we’re trying to find the master control genes that regulate metabolism.  Human hearts are genetically coded to beat about 2400 million times.  That means that you take 600 million breaths during your life.”

“So if you eat less, your body goes into low-grade dietary shock which slows down the rate of breathing, and you can live longer.”

“That’s right.  Basically you stretch out the breaths.  Mice breathe only 200 million times, so do cats and antelopes, and lions and bears.  This means,” Julia continued, “that longevity is genetically coded.  That’s what we’re looking at here in the lab.  If we can identify which genes are responsible, we can alter them and reset the clock that begins counting down at birth.  Maybe double the number of heartbeats, maybe stop the countdown entirely.  If we can do that, then barring accident or disease, you could live for quite a long time.”

“How long are we talking about?” Robby asked.

“We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here,” said Julia.  “Next week we’re going to have class in the lab and we’ll cover this in greater depth, but basically, we’re modeling an enhanced human life span of something on the order of seven hundred years.”

“Damn.”

“I could finally learn to play the banjo,” said Alice.

“I could finally get Kathryn’s phone number,” said Robby.

“That would take you more than seven hundred years,” Kathryn told him.

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Written by williamdoonan

November 3, 2012 at 1:44 am

Posted in Fiction, MedicineLand

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