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Season 14 | Episode 6

Donation and Mutation

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Thomas Gray (Photo Credit: Mark Walpole)

Where do you find comfort after the death of a child? In this episode, we follow one couple as they discover a sense of purpose in an unlikely place: a clinical world where human parts are used for research. In this surprising journey, Ross and Sarah Gray gain a view of science that is redemptive, fussy facts that are tender, and parts of a loved one that add up to something unexpected.

Then, we get a glimpse at a technology on the cusp of radically changing how we think about the effect of scientific advancements on humanity. Hidden inside some of the world’s smallest organisms is one of the most powerful tools scientists have ever stumbled across. It's a defense system that has existed in bacteria for millions of years and it may some day let us change the course of human evolution. 


Comments [20]

LRA from NY, NY

For decades I've thought of and and then turned from signing the donor line on my driver's license. An irrational, unnameable discomfort over something I couldn't name made me freeze time and again. Hearing Sarah's bravery and clarity and her choices for her Thomas, I shall sign and make other necessary arrangements so that the parts that can't be donated to other people will go to medical research. So simple, so sound. Thomas and his family will always have a place in my heart.

Nov. 18 2017 08:46 PM
Roger from Elizabethtown, PA

Many thanks for the radio lab presentation of Sarah Gray's story. I have lived with mild epilepsy and with Sjogren's Syndrome all my life. I am now 67; I will probably to be 70 or 75. Some time ago, during a difficult divorce which my wife initiated -- for reasons I suspect I will never know -- but which seemed likely to change my plans for my final days radically, I decided to give my body after death to the hospital which has cared for me. As part of the preparation for this decision, I read several books by doctors who described the use made of cadavers and discussed how they had grown emotionally when required to consider the "bones" in light of the person the disceased had been. To say the least, continuing to plan my gift required a strong will and great humility.

Now, having heard Sarah Gray's story, I feel much happier about my decision. Certainly I will not offer the med student who receives my remains the same sort of priceless tissue that Thomas gave to the many researchers. Yet the invaluable growth that may come, not only from having a cadaver to work with, but from learning general sketch of the character who saw fit to leave his bones to the next generation of docs, may do some good. Alas, poor Yorick, I did inflict Shakespeare on unsuspecting high school juniors and seniors. As my arthritic hands show, the evil we do lives after us (paper grading). I hope the good does, too. If I can make the proper arrangements, I will give my internist a thumbnail autobiographical sketch for who ever gets my bones.

Nov. 18 2017 01:55 PM
runningwolf from Murphy, North Carolina

This was a fascinating account of the power and potential of augmented human evolution through the science of genetics and bio-engineering through the direct hand and input of mankind's intervention and manipulation. Our world and Universe consists of positive and negative forces that work together as a unit in order to create ALL of the manifested world that we co-exist with. It is in the nature of humanity and his/her Free Will that has taken that which is created in perfection by God or Source and turned it into "good/evil." For every positive or good use of any technology there is an opposite negative or evil use of it......or at least potentially.

Our Earth and its inhabitants are entering the 2,160 year Age of Aquarius. Aquarius is about super HIGH technology in ways that we can only dream of. Aquarius is also when mankind comes to together in a spirit of cooperation, harmony, and enlightenment to uplift ALL of humanity and the Earth itself for the betterment of ALL. A good example of an Aquarian society is an ant colony or bee hive. Each individual has a specific purpose, but works for the good of the colony or hive. It's painfully obvious that we have a long way to go before that paradise or utopia can be obtained......are we up for the task.....or will we self-destruct in the process? Change is a given and our destiny is being written moment to moment on an individual level as well as a collective level. Welcome to the Age of Aquarius and its unbelievable rapidly evolving technology.

Sep. 26 2016 08:53 AM
C. Griffith from North Carolina

The donation story was both heart rending and life affirming. I thank you and these amazing parents for sharing this important story. Examples of grace in the face of tragedy are so vital for our health and well being in this sad, old world. I will share this broadcast with my college students.

Sep. 25 2016 04:46 PM
Susan from Idaho

I heard Sara and Ross's story with SUCH hope and joy. I cried all the way thru it knowing how Ancephalic babies were treated in the first hosp I worked in in London, Many years ago. :( These are extra ordinary parents. I commend the Pediatric nurse and her colleagues who learned how to enucleate eyes. Thank you again for an amazing story.

Sep. 25 2016 04:27 PM

I agree with the premise that somatic cell gene therapy (e.g., introducing beneficial genetic changes into the cells of an individual person to treat a disease only in that person) is part of medicine's future, using techniques such as CRISPR. Using this technology, however, for germ line gene therapy (e.g., introducing genetic changes that not only impact the individual but also the individual's offspring - future generations) is unwise. All species, including humankind, evolve in a dynamic environment (changing planet, new viruses, new bacteria, etc.), making genetic diversity key to a species' survival. To think that we can predict centuries from now what kind of environments humankind will inhabit is hubris. Today's "disease" gene allele may be tomorrow's beneficial allele. A current example: sickle cell anemia, an inherited blood disorder, protects individuals from severe malaria infection. See for more information. Germ line gene therapy has the potential to remove such gene alleles from the human gene pool permanently (unless these genes arise again spontaneously through the slow process of human evolution), based on short-term decisions as to what seems beneficial at the time.

Sep. 25 2016 01:25 PM
GP from Silver Spring, Maryland

I was surprised and disappointed with the generally positivist take on gene editing and the view that the use of this technology on humans is inevitable. The science journalist, whatever his science chops, seemed to have an ethical blindspot. Next time, consider inviting on someone with a science ethics background. And please consider noting that it is mostly engineering, not science, that is at play here. Robert was correct in observing that humans are natural designers. That is the domain of engineering. Science discovers what is, engineering creates what never was (per Theodore Von Karman).

Sep. 25 2016 01:13 PM

Many years ago working in a Pediatric ICU
Nursing would ask the parents if they would think about donations when a child was dying. Many times our parents could not donate an organ ie heart or liver but they wanted to donate their child's eyes. We would call for someone to enuculate the eyes and most times no one was available. When we started asking questions we found that the list of people who did remove had trouble removing the eyes of the young.
As nurses who were working with the parents going through such a horrible situation we felt helpless at that point.
So, a few of us actually became certified to enuculate the eye.

While listening to your excellent story I was transported back in time and could recall that wonderful feeling of being able to help those parents fulfill their wish to keep their children's memory alive and to honor the short life of their child.
Thank you for this wonderful story and bless this mother who shared her journey through the awfulness of losing a child.

Sep. 25 2016 12:54 PM

Yet another wonderful and informing episode. Thank you both and all for such excellent radio!

Sep. 24 2016 07:16 PM

Wow, how could the story on donation not win some major award! I'm donating $ on strength of that masterpiece alone. Crisper is THE fundamental technology of our era. That too is groundbreaking.

JayMcHue, I agree there is much silly rhetoric about religion (though some well deserved when Christian fundamentalists wedded themselves to conservative politics and blew up their brains, look how they run to Trump now, talk about a foundational movement for the Anti-Christ or the like).

But, it is just as silly to deny evolution at this late date. Yes, speciation has been observed time and time again, that is just a false "mantra":

If you want to see a sophisticated reconnection of science and religion, read Stuart Kauffman, "Reinventing the Sacred" or more recently: "Humanity in a Creative Universe"

Sep. 24 2016 06:35 PM
Jan from California

What an incredibly wonderful and tragic story. Sara and your husband, you are heroes to share from your child to help humanity. Your story made. me cry. I have long believed in organ donation but never realized how much Thomas, an infant,has helped and will live on. 💝

Sep. 24 2016 05:41 PM
Nancy Silverrod from San Francisco

My son, Elijah was stillborn 15 and a half years ago, and I still try to avoid stories about the deaths of babies. Sarah and Ross Gray's story about their son was compellingly beautiful - and yes, it made me cry. Thank you for sharing it.

Sep. 24 2016 05:29 PM
Ben from Oakland

Moved by this episode and the courage of the couple who lost their child but gained a new perspective and appreciation for humanity. Nice work. Thank you.

Sep. 24 2016 05:26 PM

"There is no moral or ethical question about changing human DNA."

Yeah, let's go for that "master race" the Nazis were aiming for!

"Evolution has been proven true."

Where? When? Absolutely no species has ever been seen evolving to another, which is the only thing that would ever actually prove evolution. You just have to take it on faith what evolutionists claim about species evolving into others in the past. No one's ever seen it or ever will see it. It's a faith and you hold to it dogmatically.

"Religion is fiction, fantasy, nothing but imagination."

Yep, gotta sneak that insult in at religion and the religious, don't ya? Just ignore the inconvenient fact that virtually all the science you hold dear started out being conceived by....... religious people.

"The only questions are is it good for the individual and good for humanity?"

Actually, I think your question is, "Do I like religion?" And the answer to it would be "no."

"Humanity has too long been held back by the fantasy of religion. No more."

Yes, we all know how held back people like Mendel, Fleming, Kelvin, Pasteur, Carver, Schweitzer, Heisenberg, Fermi, von Braun, and many others were because of religion.

"Evolution is good."

If it existed, no, it wouldn't be.

"Science pushing human evolution is great."

Wait. What? If it's artificially brought about in a lab, how is it evolution? Answer: it's not. It is design. Gosh, intelligent design.

Sep. 24 2016 05:26 PM
Lyn Ace from Denver, Co

Deeply touched by Sara's story, my step-daughter died(she was in her 30"s) from MS many years ago and asked that her body be donated for research. What a brave and selfless choice to people who choose organ donation for the greater good, in the mist of grief and heartache. Thank all of you. Thanks to Radio Lab for great human stories!

Sep. 24 2016 05:22 PM
Dave from Eagle, ID.

There is no moral or ethical question about changing human DNA.
Evolution has been proven true.
Religion is fiction, fantasy, nothing but imagination.
The only questions are is it good for the individual and good for humanity?
Humanity has too long been held back by the fantasy of religion.
No more.
Evolution is good.
Science pushing human evolution is great.

Sep. 24 2016 04:36 PM
Lucy from Bennington, VT

The "Life Everlasting" story was so beautifully told and produced! I especially appreciated the great music and "ocean" sounds at the end, which lingered long enough for holding the emotional effect of listening to the story. I feel deep admiration for Thomas's parents, gratitude for Sarah's telling of the story, and appreciation to the Radio Lab team for giving it the reverence it deserves. Well done!

Sep. 24 2016 02:43 PM

Great episode! And an update:


Sep. 22 2016 10:46 AM
RR from Cleveland, Ohio

People with conditions like a cleft pallet or someone injured in an accident are fortunate to have life altering surgery options. Changing any part of one's appearance on a whim is also possible. How might we use or misuse crispr? Look to our use of cosmetic surgery as an example.

Sep. 21 2016 11:18 PM
Jim Morrissey from Freeport Maine

What a great episode. I was driving for a late night work project when I first listened to this story. It took me a moment to compose myself before entering the building.

I'm listening again from home tonight with my wife and daughter.


Sep. 21 2016 07:18 PM

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