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Cloning as Discontinuity

How could so many experts be so wrong about something so important (both technologically and socially)? Until just a couple of weeks ago, the prospect of cloning adult mammals was an over-the-horizon-if-ever technological possibility, a long-term goal that most experts believed would require years of incremental advances in genetics and cloning technology. A major part of the excitement, extended coverage, and hype on cloning that has shown up in the world press following the announcement results from the fact that no one, including most experts, expected this milestone to appear for years to come.

Which means that the successful cloning of an adult mammal is an example of a discontinuity of sorts: In direct contradiction to conventional wisdom, a major advance in science or technology emerges seemingly out of the blue. An outlier sends the trend line careening off course and sends researchers, business people, and citizens scrambling off in new directions. A closer look at this discontinuity will perhaps give us some tools with which to be a little more aware of where and when other discontinuities may turn up. The object is not to predict discontinuities (though you're always welcome to give it a shot here in Tech Scan). The object is to build a view of the future that is less constrained by the conventional wisdom ­ a world view that modifies the popular bumper-sticker premise to read "Unexpected Shit Happens." So here are a few observations on the cloning discontinuity.

First of all, we need to look at the lethargy of conventional wisdom ­ a major player anytime a discontinuity turns up. A fairly large portion of the "discontinuous" nature of the cloning discovery derives from the dominance of the perceived wisdom in the world at large. You could say that 50% of the "surprise" in this discontinuity is a result of the fact that everyone accepted the notion that cloning couldn't be done. But Ian Wilmut's cloning success actually does follow a series of incremental research advances in cloning that logically lead to the successful cloning of an adult animal. Successfully replacing the nucleus of one embryo with another was the first step, and researchers accomplished it years ago. Cloning embryos containing manipulated genes was another step. Just last year, Wilmut successfully transferred a nucleus from a developing embryo to an unfertilized egg. Without detracting from the creativity in discovering the key technique that enabled the adult cloning process, we can observe that the cloning of an adult sheep is one step in a process that is traceable and predictable. By continuously questioning the conventional wisdom in both the world at large and in the scientific community, we can reduce the frequency with which discontinuities catch us by surprise. And maybe even generate some discontinuities of our own.

Another factor inflating the cloning discontinuity is the social construct inherent in the difference between cloning an embryo (accomplished years ago with little public fanfare) and cloning an adult organism ­ a distinction that has less meaning scientifically than it does socially.

The second portion of the "discontinuous" nature of the discovery (the unpredictable element of the advance and thus the "legitimate" 50% of the surprise) is Wilmut's discovery of a process capable of accomplishing the huge final step to cloning an adult animal. Wilmut discovered the means to make the DNA in differentiated adult cells act like DNA in undifferentiated embryo cells. Differentiated cells from an adult organism have matured to perform specific tasks for the body and no longer have the ability to tap the complete data bank of organism-wide instructions that still resides in their DNA. Wilmut discovered the means to get the DNA to act as if it still existed in undifferentiated form. Depriving the DNA of nutrients put it into a quiescent state in which the DNA is accessible for growth in a fertilized egg. This is the heart of our discontinuity and is what Wilmut will be remembered for, according to Jorge Piedrahita, a researcher at Texas A&M, quoted in an article in the Wall Street Journal. "Ian Wilmut will be renowned centuries from now not for cloning a mammal but for proving that a nucleus from a [mature] cell can be made to behave like the nucleus of an embryo."

We can also observe that the discovery took place in the context of an ongoing, long-term research effort that had commercially practical, short-term goals. The Roslin Institute conducts research funded by PPL Therapeutics plc and Britain's Ministry of Agriculture with the aim of developing animals suitable for manufacturing protein-based drugs and products. No one had set out to clone an adult mammal. Indeed, the lab's success in cloning an adult mammal now threatens its existence because the British government has threatened to cut off funding and close down the institute.

You can decide whether to call it chutzpah or self-confidence, but Wilmut exercised it in his decision to conduct the experiment. The Journal quotes Piedrahita, "When Ian told us that he was going to transfer the [genes] from a [mature] cell, we all rolled our eyes." We'll have to wait for Wilmut's biography for the full story, but the decision obviously involved a hunch or an imaginative leap that told him it was worth trying. Which brings us to our final observation.

The decision to pursue an unorthodox line of experimentation undoubtedly emerged from years of experience in the field. Wilmut has been engaged in research in embryology for more than 20 years and played a role in developing techniques that enabled in vitro fertilization in the 1970s. Discontinuities have the reputation of turning up in garage workshops because glamorous cases like those make good reading and sell magazines and books on management. But as the innovation process becomes increasingly information intensive, highly technical research labs will be the most likely locus for new discontinuities. What will remain common to all discontinuities will be the human initiative and creativity that lie behind the decision to question the conventional wisdom and stretch the bounds of what we know and what we attempt to achieve.

Electric Minds participants have been discussing cloning for a couple of weeks now. For general discussions of both the technology and the ethical implications, try Technos.69 or Future_Surf.26. If you'd like to talk about cloning as a discontinuity, start a topic in Tech Scan.

For more information
Sheep Thrills in Slate
Wall Street Journal, 28 February 1997, page B1
San Jose Mercury News, 25 February 1997, page 1A


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You can decide
whether to call
it chutzpah or
but Wilmut
exercised it
in his decision
to conduct
the experiment.

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