Jad Abumrad: This is Radiolab. I'm Jad Abumrad. Today we're in a Dr. Frankenstein sort of mood, so we figure, where better to start than at the museum--

Laurel Kendall: American Museum of Natural History.

Jad: -where they have on a kind of Frankensteiny exhibit.

Laurel: I'm Laurel Kendall. I curate the American Museum of Natural History's exhibit, mythic creatures. We're standing in front of a dragon.

Jad: Now, why would there be a dragon at the Museum of Natural History? Well, according to the curator, Laurel Kendall, why not?

Laurel: The human mind loves to wonder what would happen if we put wings on a horse or put a tail on a beautiful woman. That is human.

Jad: Justify it however you want.

Laurel: That belongs in a museum.

Jad: What you see before you-

Laurel: We begin the exhibit [crosstalk]

Jad: -is a hall of strange twisting creatures dimly lit. When you look more closely, you realize that they're all mash-ups.

Laurel: From the natural world. For example--

Jad: She takes us over to one corner, points at a glass case where inside is this creepy little hybrid skeleton thing.

Laurel: Look at this beast and see how it really is a composite.

Jad: Half of it is a monkey, the upper half and the lower half, like some kind of trout. The place is full of stuff like this. A lion with an eagle head, humans with snake tails, just about anything you can imagine.

Laurel: It's very operatic.

Jad: Oh, I forgot to mention the most important part, kids. Tons and tons of kids completely in awe.

Speaker 3: Oh my God, a unicorn.

Lulu Miller: What are we standing under here?

Speaker 5: The Pegasus.

Lulu: Can you describe what we're seeing here?

Speaker 6: It's a horse.

Speaker 5: The body's like a horse.

Speaker 6: It has these really big wings like birds.

Speaker 5: Wings like an eagle.

Speaker 6: Maybe somehow it's [unintelligible 00:02:05] to a horse and a bird and their genes form together to make a Pegasus.

Speaker 5: Nice. What I see, it just looks so exciting.

Speaker 6: I think that it just looks really cool.

Jad: When you ask these kids, as our producer Lulu Miller did.

Lulu: Why is it cool? Why is it fun to see two animals mashed together?

Jad: Well, they just look at you like you're dumb.

Speaker 5: It's a horse with wings.

Lulu: Birds have wings.

Speaker 5: Yes, birds, they are not mythical.

Speaker 7: They're like regular, every day you see them. Every time you just see a pigeon you're like, "Oh, whatever."

Jad: Maybe it's that simple.

Jad: Any case, the kids, sick of us and our dumb questions, run off to this kiosk that the museum had set up around the corner where they could actually build their own creatures.

Lulu: Okay, now can you describe your guy here?

Speaker 4: He has Seven heads.

Speaker 7: He has a tail with fire on it.

Speaker 4: Four legs.

Speaker 7: And he has a long body.

Jad: The thing is, you can't help but wonder if these same kids in about 30 or 40 years might actually be able to do this for real.

Freeman Dyson: When they're grown up, those kids will be at home in the new world of biotechnology. They will be ready to put their skills to use. There will be do-it-yourself kits to breed new varieties of pigeons and parrots and lizards and snakes.

Speaker 7: A body like a snake rather than like a bird.

Speaker 8: Can I do it because I never got to do it?

Speaker 7: Okay.

Freeman: Genetic engineering, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures.

Jad: That is physicist Freeman Dyson. We'll hear more from him later. Now, whether it's true or not what he's saying, it does seem to be the case that we are at this pivotal point now where this stuff that we used to only imagine might actually turn into reality, which is why maybe you get an exhibit of fantasy creatures at the Museum of Natural History.

Laurel: This is a celebration of the human imagination, human ingenuity, human art.

[music]

Jad: That's our show today, life, but not as we know it, life as we might invent it, tweak it, augment it.

Robert Krulwich: Yes, but if you augment, tweak and remake, people will quickly come to you and say, "Hey, don't fuss with this. It's not natural. It's not right."

Jad: Speaking of right and natural and fussing, who are you?

Robert: I'm sorry. I'm Robert Krulwich, who's always right, always natural and--

Jad: And always fussing. Any case, that word you mentioned.

Robert: Natural.

Jad: Yes, that one. Natural. What does it mean exactly? Let's just think about that.

Robert: It means what's familiar.

Jad: What we know.

Robert: What we know.

Jad: Let's just muck that up a bit, because it turns out when you look in nature, you will find things that are frankly very strange and not familiar.

Robert: Like?

Jad: Let me tell you a story. It's an amazing story, about a woman, heard about it from a reporter, Soren Wheeler. Hi, Soren?

Soren Wheeler: Hey.

Jad: Soren, tell me about Karen.

Soren: Karen is a mother of three, a middle-aged woman living outside of Boston, in the suburbs of Boston. She lives there with her husband, Pete, the kids are out of the house now.

Jad: Tell me what you were thinking when you walked up to her door?

Soren: I was nervous. I was strangely nervous about meeting her.

Karen: Soren.

Soren: Hi, Karen.

Karen: Hi.

Soren: I got there and she was as friendly as can be.

Karen: Come on in. I'll bring in a couple cups of tea.

Soren: She made me tea. We sat in the living room and talked. She was just normal, which is weird given the story that she was about to tell me. Let's start at the very beginning.

Karen: In 1995, I was told that I needed a kidney transplant immediately.

Soren: What's that like? What are you going through?

Karen: It was frightening.

Soren: The doctors told Karen they needed to act fast.

Karen: They asked me who in my family might be willing to donate a kidney.

Soren: The two older boys, that's Matt and Jess and Karen's husband, Pete, they all went in to get what should have been a pretty routine DNA test.

Karen: Yes, they had the blood work done.

Soren: They waited-

Karen: A couple of weeks later, I got a phone call from the hospital and they said, "Mrs. Keegan, this is a very unusual situation that we're going to explain to you. It's something that we've never seen before, but when the DNA testing was done on your sons, we found that they didn't match your DNA."

Soren: Is that how they said it?

Karen: Yes. They said, "They match the father, but they're not a match for you."

Jad: What does that mean, that They didn't match her DNA?

Soren: She's not their mother.

Karen: Pretty much.

Soren: To Karen, this was crazy.

Karen: Yes.

Soren: She told them, "I was there."

Karen: This could not possibly be.

Soren: I gave birth to these kids, I felt the pain.

Karen: You better do the test again because you're obviously wrong.

Soren: They did do the test again. Same result.

Karen: The read was correct. There was not a laboratory error.

Soren: This is one of her doctors, Lynne Uhl.

Lynne Uhl: We felt, particularly after the second time, that it was real.

Karen: Then they said, "Now, we have had situations where the husband's DNA didn't match, but we've never had a mother whose DNA didn't match their children."

Jad: Wait, if the DNA is saying she's not the mom, then what would explain that?

Soren: The first thought was that there was some kind of mix-up.

Karen: Some switch of babies or something.

Jad: Oh, like a baby switch right after birth kind of thing.

Soren: Yes, but the problem with that is that the dad is the dad, the father's right. You have to figure out how could they have gotten the wrong kid but the right dad?

Jad: So then what, if that's the case?

Soren: Here's the thing. At this point-

Karen: As we got further involved with this-

Soren: -people are thinking maybe Karen's done something kind of fishy.

Karen: Yes, there must be something that you're not being told.

Soren: Maybe she implanted her womb with another woman's baby and then she just kind of lied about it.

Karen: Yes. That she lied about it. They said, "Well, could you tell us what hospital you had these children in?"

Jad: Exactly how-- I'm still confused.

Soren: She's being accused of being some kind of monster.

Karen: Somebody who maybe wished they had children or stole the child or something had to be because obviously, DNA is never wrong. It's never wrong.

Jad: Wow. How did she talk to her family about this?

Soren: What are those conversations like?

Karen: I do remember some very sad moments with my sons. I told them, and I don't think they maybe even completely realized what I was saying.

Soren: Lynne, Karen's doctor, couldn't get this out of her head. Something wasn't adding up.

Lynne: Didn't make sense.

Soren: She thought about the fact that they've done all the tests on Karen's blood.

Lynne: Only in her blood cells.

Soren: Lynne started thinking maybe-

Lynne: The next step.

Soren: -they ought to look at some other parts.

Karen: To do that, we would need to test other tissues. Scrape the inside of your mouth and get a little saliva and maybe a hair or two, thyroid, bladder and a skin biopsy.

Soren: They're getting all sorts of parts of you.

Karen: They're getting all parts, all kinds of parts from me.

Soren: That's when things started to get strange.

Lynne: When we got the results of the tissue studies, we identified two sets of DNA.

Soren: Two people.

Jad: Two what?

Soren: Another person in Karen.

Jad: She had another person inside her?

Soren: Well, sort of. She did have a separate set of DNA. It was like she had another person with its own genetic identity in her body. The thing is, Jad, that other person, that was the mother of the boys.

Jad: How did it get there?

Soren: That's what the doctors were wondering. They all sit down, put their heads together, try to figure it out and then it hit them.

Lynne: You were a twin. You were a twin.

Jad: You mean, she had a twin?

Soren: No, she's both twins. Here's what happened. In Karen's mother's womb, originally, there were two eggs.

Lynne: Two fertilized eggs.

Soren: Twin girls, side by side.

Lynne: Developing in their own separate sacks.

Soren: Then, after a couple of days, something strange happens. Somehow, the two embryos bumped into each other and they fuse.

Lynne: Into one unit.

Soren: That one became Karen.

Jad: Like a mixture of the two of them?

Soren: Well, no, they didn't blend. According to Lynne, what happened is they claimed different parts of her.

Lynne: They still had their own, what did I want to say? Boundaries?

Soren: One twin claimed her blood and the other twin claimed her thyroid and her bladder.

Jad: Karen is a plural. Has this happened before?

Soren: Well, supposedly, it's pretty rare but it does happen. In fact, there's a scientific word for this condition. Karen first heard that word from her doctor, Margot Cresco.

Karen: Margo came to my bedside, explained that I was a Chimera, a term which I had never heard of before.

Soren: Did she come and say, you're a Chimera?

Karen: Yes. Now, that was interesting because I called my son, the English major, and said, "Matt, I found out I was a Chimera." He said, "Oh, you know what a Chimera is, don't you?" I said, "No." He said, "Well, in the ancient Greek myths, a Chimera is an animal that has a lion head, a donkey's [unintelligible 00:12:30] a goat tail. It's a mixture."

Soren: In Greek myth, the Chimera was a monster that the hero's supposed to slay.

Karen: That didn't make me feel very good.

Soren: Then Karen learned more about what Chimera meant medically and what could have happened to her.

Karen: If the eggs hadn't fused within four days, I would have become a Siamese twin. When you hear that, you immediately have a more concrete vision of two selves. It brought home the reality that I really was a twin.

Soren: She is a twin.

Karen: One doctor said, "Do you think you have two souls?" I think of myself as the union. There is almost a subtle sadness to think that I would have had a sister. There is a shadow feeling of loss. There could have been more.

Jad: Thanks to reporter Soren Wheeler for that. Let's make things a little more disturbing now because human beings, scientists are now capable of creating Chimeras purposefully. We talked to Lee Silver who's a scientist at Princeton. Okay, Lee, you have to say something.

Lee Silver: Okay. My left ear is receiving more than my right, is there a way--

Jad: He told us about an intentional Chimera creature created by a Danish embryologist named Steen Willadsen.

Lee: He took a goat embryo and a sheep embryo and he pushed them together in his petri dish, put that mixture of embryo back into a female, I don't remember which species, and then what was born was an animal that was part goat, part sheep. He called that a geep.

Jad: Was it visibly kind of goaty and kind of sheepy?

Lee: Well, it was actually, yes, it was very visible, and what happened because of the way development occurs, parts of its body look sheep like and parts of its body look goat like.

Jad: Which parts?

Lee: Well, he did this multiple times and so, he actually got multiple geeps. Sometimes the animal would have a goat head, but then parts of its body would be sheep-like with wool. Other times it would have a sheep head.

Jad: How confusing it would be at the geep dance. You wouldn't know who was supposed to dance with whom.

Soren: Could geeps relate with one another in that way?

Lee: I don't remember.

Jad: He's not a geep. Odd as he may look, with that little beard and everything and the hooves. Just to give you a visual, we've got a picture here of three geeps hanging out near a tree.

Soren: Do you want to describe it?

Lee: Well, the geep, one of them looks like a naked animal wearing a coat of shaggy hair.

Jad: It's got this streak of sheep wool running on its back, but the rest of it looks kind of goaty.

Soren: Do you find it cute?

Jad: I kind of do find it cute.

Soren: Now let's uncute it a bit. Suppose instead of talking about mixing sheep with goats, since you're not a sheep or a goat, let's make it more personal.

Lee: People are most worried about combining human embryonic cells and monkey or chimp embryonic cells. The idea is if you took a chimp embryo and a human embryo and you push them together, based on the geep results, based on lots of other data that scientists have accumulated, it's very likely that you'd have an organism born that was part chimp, part human.

Jad: There once was a creature like that because if you believe in evolution, you believe that chimps eventually became humans. Somewhere in history there is someone who is 10% chimp and 90% human.

Lee: That common ancestor evolved continuously and slowly from a chimp-like individual to a human, and in every point along the 100,000 generations, the children didn't look very different from their parents.

Jad: Here's the very sad Hollywood movie. I go and I go and I create a creature, a geep-like amalgamation, which is 50% chimpanzee ape and 50% human Homo sapiens and he's the only one. That's like creating a tragedy it seems like, because you'd be creating someone who is isolated in his physiology.

Lee: Yes, this is--

Jad: No one could breed with him or maybe they could but who would like--

Lee: [crosstalk] I'm going to-- because you're taping this.

Jad: You're opening something.

Lee: I'm opening something for you. This is actually a play. Here, you can look at this. It's going to be performed next week.

Jad: Sweet Sweet Motherhood, is that it?

Lee: Yes, that's it.

Jad: So, this is a play of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Shelly McCann wants a baby, a human-chimpanzee baby. Shelly's been spending too much time partying to build up a respectable grade point average, so she proposes the following senior thesis, fertilize one of her eggs with a sperm from a chimpanzee in her womb. It's an interesting term paper. Professor Harry Stein must do everything he can to stop her. The play is inspired by a true event. Really? This is your play?

Lee: Yes. Jeremy Kareken is the main playwright and I collaborated with him.

Jad: What is the true event on what this is based?

Lee: The true event is that about 10, 12 years ago now, I was talking in my usual flippant way to a bunch of students, and a sequence information had just come out showing that chimps and humans were almost 90% the same at the DNA level, and so we just threw out the idea, well, based on what we know about goats and sheep and everything else, you probably could have a hybrid developed between a chimpanzee and a human being.

It was a thought experiment. What would it be? How would it develop? Which of its characteristics would be human, which would be chimpanzee? The next day, a student, a junior, came to my office and said she wanted to do the experiment inside her own womb, so then--

Jad: In real life, what did you do, hit her on the head with a baseball bat or what?

Lee: No, I was flabbergasted. She was absolutely serious because it's actually true. She was this student who partied a lot and she needed a senior thesis in Princeton counts an enormous amount towards your final GPA. She wanted to do this unique experiment hoping she'd get an A+ in her senior thesis. She was very naive obviously. That was the last time I saw her.

Jad: Wow, She was going to put up this little chimpanzee up for adoption as soon as it was born?

Lee: Well, no. [crosstalk]

Lee: Worse than that. I asked her, "What would you do with this individual?" I said, "Well, if it's a human being, you have to raise it like a human being. It has rights like a human being. If it's a chimpanzee, you put her in the zoo or you use it for experiments and what's it going to be?" Her answer to that question was she would abort, right before it came time to go into labor. She'd abort and so the whole idea of the senior thesis was to study the development of this hybrid inside of her womb.

Soren: She really wanted to do this for real? Not just on paper for a project but actually to herself?

Lee: Yes. Now, there are many, many, many, many problems.

Jad: Yes. This gives new meaning to liberal arts education. You got to be really liberal here.

Lee: Right and we talked for about an hour. I dissuaded her. I never saw her again.

Jad: Except in a way in his play, the one he co-wrote. This is the play about the teacher at the fancy university who happens just to be teaching a biology class-

Teacher: The human ovary within the mouse's body--

Jad: -happens to have this notion about what would it be like if chimps and humans had babies together?

Teacher: Actually in a number of ways I am more similar to a male chimp than I am to my sister.

Jad: Happens to have in the play-

Student: Can we talk?

Jad: -a student who comes up after class and says.

Student: I want to combine one of my eggs with chimpanzee sperm.

Teacher: I don't want you to do this.

Student: Why not?

Jad: Except, by the way, in the play, she actually goes through with it.

Student: I'm pregnant.

Jad: He wrote the play to keep a conversation going that wouldn't get out of his head.

Lee: The question is what is a human being? If you look at it developmentally, evolutionarily through these hybrids and chimeras, where's the boundary between human being and non-human being, and at the end of my quest, I personally concluded that there is no boundary.

Soren: None at all?

Lee: No. It's fuzzy. So in other words, if you look at the analogy I like to give is look at the color spectrum between green and blue. When you go from green to blue along the color spectrum, it's a continuous fragile change from one to the other. There's no point at which you say here's the boundary between green and blue. If you take that analogy which I did to human beings, you say during development, during evolution, in terms of a chimera, there's no boundary.

Jad: But the social effect of having staked out that position is that you aren't going to defend our species against all kinds of amendments. There is a consequence to this kind of thinking, right? You can't do [unintelligible 00:22:41] anything goes, can you?

Lee: No. No, I don't believe you can do anything goes. My purpose is to say not that anything goes, but that in theory, all these outrageous things could happen.

Soren: And actually are happening.

Jad: Here's an example.

Lee: Since 1980, scientists have been taking human genes, genetic information, putting it into mice. This is sort of a routine procedure for people who do Mouse Molecular Genetics. In fact, the really exciting thing that people are doing now is they're making cows that are engineered to produce human blood. The idea is that you want to change all the genes in the cow that normally produce the proteins in cow blood, you want to make them all human. You have a cow making human blood. I don't think most people would mind that and then you could use it for blood transfusions.

Soren: Wow. Could you make a cow with human blood and a human kidney so that you could use that too?

Lee: Well, actually, the Israeli scientists have already created a mouse that has a tiny little functioning human kidney.

Soren: Get out.

Jad: Yes.

Lee: I could show you the picture. There are other people who are working with sheep and trying to make human livers inside sheep and the whole idea is regenerative medicine.

Jad: Sacrifice the animals to get a new kidney for you.

Lee: I actually think that as long as you don't play with the external features, I think society will accept it. People eat pigs and if you can eat a pig why not grow a pig to have a human liver or kidney or heart?

Soren: As long as it still looks like a pig, you're saying?

Lee: That's right. As long as it still looks like a pig and it still behaves like a pig. If you put a human arm onto a pig, I don't think people would like that.

Soren: But you acknowledge that the distinctions you're drawing are emotional distinctions and not rational.

Lee: Absolutely. They're emotional and I'm saying that sometimes emotional distinctions matter. I have no solutions. I don't know where to draw a line. Society has to draw lines.

Jad: Radiolab will continue in a moment.

Automated voice: Message one.

Lee: Hi, this is Lee Silver. Radiolab is funded in part by the Alfred P Sloan Foundation, the corporation for public broadcasting and the National Science Foundation. Radiolab is produced by WNYC, New York public radio and distributed by NPR, National Public Radio.

Automated voice: End of message.

 

Copyright © 2021 New York Public Radio. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use at www.wnyc.org for further information.

New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.