Having spent three years at university living with two biochemistry students who were hell bent on teaching me all about Crick & Watson, molecular biosciences and the rudimentary principles of genetic engineering, I’ve subsequently followed their careers with interest as I’m filled with curiosity about genetics and cloning – but also originality and individuality.
Simon is now Professor of Cellular & Integrative Physiology at a highly respected US university. His enthusiasm on Skype for keeping me updated on his research programmes, investigating the pathways that control pituitary gland organogenes, and developing new diagnostic and genetic tools knows no bounds.
As a result, I can talk for a good twenty minutes on how the anterior pituitary gland secretes polypeptide hormones that are essential for human development and physiology parameters including metabolic homeostasis.
Geoff took a different route to his career, wandering around various world-class commercial labs in America, Germany and now in the UK, collecting knowledge. Currently he’s in a role as Head of Research and Director of Lab Sciences focused on the betterment of humanity, so he tells me, leading innovative new drug research and discovery programmes.
He plans to save the planet, so he can live to 150 along the way. Our last conversation was about how integration of radioactivity data with metabolite profiling is key in the characterisation of the disposition of drugs and chemicals. I’ll fetch my (white lab) coat.
Both had a passion for genetics, and we had heated debates about the ethical and scientific boundaries regarding the deliberate modification of the characteristics of an organism by manipulating its genetic material. Alas my knowledge ceiling was the Czech monk Gregor Mendel and experiments on plant hybridisation with the breeding of pea plants in his garden, and his principles of heredity and inheritance.
Simon and Geoff lauded him as the father of genetics and we once went to a Biochemistry Society fancy dress party with the three of us dressed as Mendel, although I recall we were more mad monks than abstemious monks and hit the mead heavily that evening.
It’s now over twenty years since the first adult genetic clone, a sheep called Dolly. In the summer of 1996 Karen Mycock, a cell biologist, was attending a wedding in the Scottish highlands. Returning to her hotel to change her hat, she found a fax pushed under her door. It said: She’s been born and she has a white face and furry legs. An unusual birth announcement, but it was an unusual birth.
Karen worked at the Roslin Institute, an animal-research centre near Edinburgh. She had passed a tiny jolt of electricity through two sheep cells in a dish. One was an egg cell which had its nucleus removed, the bit of the cell which contains almost all its genes. The other, its gene-bearing nucleus intact, was from the udder of another ewe. The electric jolt had caused the two cells to fuse, forming an embryo. The ‘nuclear transfer’ she had overseen had worked. An adult sheep had been cloned.
The egg donor was a Scottish Blackface sheep who was the surrogate mother that took the embryo to term. The other cell came from a white-faced Finn Dorset. The fax had been kept brief and cryptic because the genetic breakthrough was hush-hush. When a scientific paper was published in Nature, a right furore broke out that went far beyond the scientific world.
The fuss among scientists was due to the fact that many believed cloning animals was impossible. John Gurdon of Oxford University had cloned frogs by nuclear transfer in 1958, but his creations never developed beyond the tadpole stage. All efforts to do the same in mammals had failed.
This had led biologists to believe that although all cells in a body shared the same genetic material, they were not equally capable of the same reproductive feats. Stem cells, found in early embryos, could develop into the various sorts of specialist cells found in skin, muscle or nerves, but development was way off.
The research at the Roslin Institute showed that this need not be the case. The key advance was made by Keith Campbell, who realised the importance of synchronised cell cycles, the rhythms according to which cells grow and divide. By starving the donor cells in a way that forced them to stop dividing, Campbell matched them to the eggs’ cycle.
Dolly opened up two new possibilities. Firstly reproductive cloning, the copying of individual animals, secondly, the creation of stem cells capable of forming other cells, something which came to be known as therapeutic cloning. The media and public became obsessed with the idea that human clones were just around the corner from the Frankenstein frisson of sparks of electricity.
However, from Dolly, 277 successful nuclear transfers produced just twenty-nine normal embryos, which were implanted into thirteen surrogate mothers. Only one survived. Alas Dolly developed osteoarthritis and a lung infection at an early age, and she died prematurely. That said, four clones of Dolly herself are currently enjoying a healthy old age at the University of Nottingham.
Beyond the lab, cloning has made slow but steady progress, successfully used on more than twenty species with the technique proving particularly fruitful in cattle and dairy farming, allowing multiple copies of elite animals. In New Zealand and America it is regarded as a normal animal-breeding procedure and clones are part of the pedigree market. Meat and milk from cloned animals is routinely farmed and sold in America. In Europe, though, it is banned on grounds of animal wellbeing.
Cloning produces replicas, not originals. Originality. What does it mean to you? Originality results from the power of imagination, like Picasso and Einstein. It’s up to the individual to take advantage of that imagination and turn it into something great. Imagination leads us to accomplish our greatest achievements. When you dare to be an original, you are in essence daring to be yourself and who you really are.
It’s true. Life is too short to live it trying to be anything other than your true original self. Be who you are, and be it the best way you know how. So how do you do this? Here are some thoughts.
Listen to the voices in your head
What do you mean, you don’t hear voices inside your head, is it just me then? Whatever the voices tell you, trust them and your instinct, and go for it. Trust yourself and your intuition.
Expect a lot from yourself, believe in yourself
Don’t let someone else define your agenda, you decide what is possible for you. Dare to believe you can be the best, and make it happen. Embrace challenges and setbacks as defining moments, learn from them, use them as springboards.
Don’t care about being right, care about succeeding
Steve Jobs used this line in an interview after he was fired by Apple, and I think it’s a great guiding principle for anyone, as a person or business leader.
Chose your attitude
Regardless of appearances, no one escapes life without enduring tough moments and cul-de-sacs. The truth is, life is messy and unpredictable. The difference between those who overcome challenges and those who succumb to them is largely one of attitude.
JRR Tolkien’s words in The Hobbit are inspiring about your choosing your attitude for personal or business growth:
The greatest adventure is what lies ahead
Today and tomorrow are yet to be said
The chances, the changes are all yours to make
The mold of your life is in your hands to break
Our world today is full of Dollys, replicas, clones and imitations, so craft a life of novelty and innovation. Conformity to the norm will merely sentence you to mediocrity, who wants to be average, surely that’s just a blank face in the crowd of irrelevance – be your own voice.
Life’s too short to go unnoticed
Be audacious, but with humility. Life is all about progression from good to great. Push yourself to be there, at the top table, but never be afraid to wash the pots too. Leaning back, or leaning forwards, which do you think is the best stance to take?
Reach beyond your expectations
A Shackleton quote. Success means different things to different people, and that’s okay, but it’s not other’s opinions you should be concerned with, but your own expectations. It’s my hope your sights will shift from the modest pursuit of success to the passionate pursuit of significance.
Live at your Personal Best
Following on from the above, look into the minds of Olympians such as Beamon, Owens, Lewis, Fosbury, Redgrave and Liddell. Push yourself at every moment, seize the day. Today’s laurels are tomorrow’s compost.
Be a lifelong learner
Graduation isn’t the end of learning, just the start. Learning defines the person and is a lifelong endeavour of discovery, improvement and fulfilment. The minute you stop learning is the minute you cede your future and check out on the race with yourself to realise your potential.
Be conscious of living in the moment. Pay attention to the moment, and make it happen. Fantasy of ‘what will be’ is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope, but don’t take life too seriously, be happy.
Stay hungry, stay foolish
The closing lines from Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford University speech captures a sentiment that seems on the face of it somewhat flippant, however, when you reflect, it’s a statement about keeping your ambition and being adventurous, never taking yourself too seriously, keeping the zest and attitude of youth.
In addition, Jobs made three other points to the Stanford class, which are relevant to all entrepreneurs:
- You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future, so follow your curiosity, intuition and your heart.
- Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick, but keep going doing the thing you love, that is great work. If you haven’t found it, keep searching until you find it. Keeping looking don’t settle.
- Live each day as if it is your last, because one day you will be right. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it by living someone else’s life, don’t be trapped by dogma of other people’s thinking, don’t let your own voice be drowned out by other people’s noise. Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. Everything else is secondary
Check out Job’s inspirational speech
There is a light that never goes out from our youth, keep it alive as the years clock on. Individualism is a human thing. Don’t waste your time trying to be a copycat. Be yourself, stand out from the crowd, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind. Choose to champion novel ideas and values that go against the grain, battle conformity, and buck outdated traditions.
Don’t be a sheep in wolf’s clothing, or another sheep’s clothing. It’s better to fail in originality than succeed in imitation.