My name is D’oX. I tell stories. Sometimes, however, I investigate and record events of significance that occurred primarily in the past for which the record is either incomplete, inaccurate, or wrong. I also chronicle events that were not viewed as significant at the time they occurred, but proved to have a great impact in subsequent years. Those participating in such events were usually unaware of the their significance, save for a few outliers who could see where others could not. I am indebted to those outliers because they often left behind a record either in obscure scientific journals or in unpublished papers hidden in various archives. Finding such material is one of my greatest challenges and thrills.
The subject of this brief account is the result of one such challenge. It involved research that began two thousand years ago according to the system of time used by the inhabitants of the third planet in a solar system on the outer edge of a galaxy not far from my own. The research involved an attempt to artificially produce life forms already perfected by that planet’s evolution or, as we know it now, universal galactic evolution. The process was called Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT), or cloning. This very brief account is really just an introduction to a much longer paper I hope to complete. It will, however, give the reader a sense of what was taking place and the consequences such research produced.
The species conducting the research was sentient, of course, and was apparently capable of exploration of the space outside of its solar system, though I found no record of contact with other sentient life forms. I did discover that as self-aware beings they often created problems for themselves resulting from that self-awareness. This brief account gives a glimpse into how such problems arose, and it is my thesis that it ultimately contributed to the end of their existence on the planet. I should emphasize that this is just a hypothesis. I, and other researchers are still collecting data. The reader can decide for himself whether the evidence presented here contains compelling evidence to support my hypothesis, which I hope will lead to a full theory explaining the extinction of this species.
Because we greatly value their contribution including, I might say, the sacrifice of the individual cells to the creation of sentient life forms, I relate this sequence of events primarily from the point of view of the living cell.
Sequence of Events
The cumulus cells¹ communicated with each other with chemical signals. If they were able to speak with words, they would ask where they were. The truth? They had been hijacked from their natural environment and placed in a plastic dish where they were being cultivated “in vitro”, as it was known to the scientists who had snatched them from the ovarian cumulus tissue where they, along with their thousands of like cells, had defined the reproductive organ of a sentient being capable of sexual reproduction.
The cells knew that something was wrong: They felt cold and isolated. The food they were fed did not taste right and the smell was awful. They sought out signals that would lead them back home. They were suspended within a solution of completely foreign animal cells of another species. It was a technique used by the unfeeling technicians to keep them alive and reproducing. It made them feel dirty.
Then without warning just as they were feeling strong and adjusted to their new environment, all of the cumulus cells had their “brains removed”. The brains, in this case, refer to the nucleus containing their DNA. As a naked nucleus, they experienced a kind of disembodied consciousness. They were alone and bodiless.
The loneliness was soon replaced by an awakening (an electric shock applied by a callous technician) in a new world that was foreign, yet familiar. It was as if each of the individual disembodied consciousnesses awakened to a resurrected life. Instead of life within cumulus tissue, they were now directing the creation of a new being inside the body of an enucleate oocyte.² How could this be? they thought. Despite the questions, they began to perform their new program, directing the differentiation of a single oocyte into an embryo. As nuclear DNA, it was their raison d’être, even though it was a reprograming of their original purpose. They were victims of SCNT: somatic cell nuclear transfer. It was what every somatic cell³ feared.
The reprogramming proved to be difficult. The chemical signals that were normally clean and clear were full of foul-smelling molecules. They could not feed without becoming ill and expelling most the putrid nourishment. There was not enough energy available for their cellular functions and as a result, not all of them survived.
For those cells remaining, the attrition was hard to take. It was like seeing a family member, struggling to hang on to life, die in front of you. A few at a time, they began to expire until out of one hundred, only ten remained alive. The ten that successfully adapted were experiencing a kind of happiness: they were doing what they were created for, and were doing it well. Yet the signals they received from their new host, the oocyte, were mixed at best. Somewhere along the line they had lost their original cumulus tissue programming and now received new information from chemical signals they did not fully recognize. It was if they were learning a foreign language “on the fly.” They learned quickly, though, because their will to survive was primal and strong.
Each of the surviving ten, now an individual embryo, lived in a separate environment – a transparent plastic container. They were protected by the scientists who had taken them from their original home to this new, artificial environment. While it provided them with what they needed to survive, they would have demanded to be returned home had they had the ability. But they knew such demands would be futile. As embryonic cells, their former identity was gone. Even if they could be re-reprogramed to cumulus tissue cells again, the chances of being rejected were huge.
Dr. Donaldson was elated as he peered through the microscope at one of the surviving embryos. They all had reached the stage where they could be prepared for implantation in the uterus of a host body to produce the first human clone. A ten percent survival rate was a triumph. Now it remained to be seen if at least one of the ten could be brought to term.
Donaldson was still troubled by the question of self-referential systems⁴ because such systems often produced contradictions and paradoxes. The animal models, where clones had been carried in the womb of the same animal from which the clone originated, had a less than 10% chance of being carried to term, a rate far below the success rate of other clones. It had been theorized this low rate was due to self reference. Nobody knew why any one clone survived and another failed, but the embryos knew and this is their story.
The embryos, newly conscious now and unaware of their former life, were shocked by the cold. They were paralyzed as all warmth, nourishment, and vital energy were drained from their environment. They were alive and then a cold, dark sleep fell upon them.
The new embryos did not know how long they had been asleep. Warmth and light had returned gradually. They were disoriented; and they felt as if they were floating in empty space. Just when they were feeling relatively warm and secure, lightening struck and they felt a surge of energy that caused them to vibrate uncontrollably for several minutes. Of the ten that had been put into a deep, cold sleep, only two survived.
Individually, they were sucked from their secure yet unfamiliar environment, and each one transferred to what felt to them more natural conditions. It was a new environment with the taste and smell of the familiar. They were surrounded by other cells that were friendly and supportive. Instead of the terrible, horrible-smelling nourishment of their previous environment, here the food was good. They could understand the language and the chemical signals of these cells. They soon learned that they had a role to play that was vital to all of life. Once again, they were happy.
The happiness did not last. Now only one survived. The shocks and the cold, dark sleep had weakened the now dead embryo. It was absorbed by the cleanup cells in its host and was unceremoniously carried away for disposal. The lone embryo, with only the will to hang on, hung on. The host tissue and its constituent cells were determined not to lose the remaining seed. Nourishment was increased. Temperature and pressure were optimized for survival. Signals were sent back and forth among all cells of the host telling all organs to work together to ensure survival of the clone. The immune system knew this clone as one of their own. The circulatory system went to overdrive, producing thousands of tiny vessels to feed the embryo. The endocrine system produced hormones that optimized all of the host’s metabolic functions to ensure survival of the clone.
The embryo, enlivened by all the attention, began to divide until it became a blastomere, full of stem cells. Differentiation began until, within a few days, the mass of cells was converted into a fetus with a placenta anchoring it to the hosts womb. A rapidly beating heart, at first just a clump of unregulated cells, was soon to become the master of the circulatory system.
The process of gestation seemed to be progressing normally after three weeks when the immune system, during its regular process of probing for foreign bodies, became confused. Instead of finding foreign bodies it found two bodies of the same identity that it believed to be developing fetuses. One was in its proscribed location within the body’s uterus; the other appeared to be the body itself. Other systems in the body began to receive the same confusing information: Two bodies existed that appeared to have the characteristics of a developing fetus. But that should be impossible. The host body could not be host and fetus all at the same time, yet that was what all chemical signals were transmitting.
Once the signals became strong enough the endocrine system’s program kicked in and began to treat the host body as if it were a fetus. New blood vessels were produced in massive numbers all over the host body to increase the amount of nourishment to organ tissues. A type of cancerous blood vessel was produced as a consequence of this abnormal activity. Typical morning sickness was extended well beyond what was normal and false placentas were implanted throughout the host body. The host began to swell with extra weight.
The developing fetus could not compete with the demands of the host’s body. Its heart rate increased to two hundred and fifty beats per minute and it began to have spasms. A signal was sent to abort the fetus so that all systems could concentrate on the host body as the fetus of priority.
When the developing fetus was aborted and the host experienced a common miscarriage, the confusion among the systems of the body began to abate for a time. The host body, however, now recognized itself as both host and fetus. The paradox soon strengthened to the point where the body saw itself as a threat and sent out a signal to abort.
It was what Dr. Donaldson had feared: The clone and host had formed a self-referential system. During the developing pregnancy the body and its many systems had sought to understand itself so that it could correctly perform its functions. The body had asked a simple question: What state am I now in? The answer set up self reference: I am pregnant with myself, leading to the logical conclusion that the fetus must be myself. But if the fetus is the body then the body must be the fetus as well. This paradox of the body being the fetus and the fetus being the body lead to the pregnant mother’s body attempting to sustain itself as a fetus which ultimately lead to its death.
It is my contention; indeed it is at the heart of my hypothesis, that self referential systems, when forced to question the nature of the system, self destruct. I plan to use this discovery of attempts by a species to clone itself as the model to prove my hypothesis. I further assert a corollary which is: When self aware or sentient beings attempt to ask how they are self aware the attempt leads to individual mental illness and possible suicide. I believe that this phenomenon, when carried to an extreme, can also lead to species extinction.
1. A cluster of cells (called cumulus cells) that surround the oocyte both in the ovarian follicle and after ovulation. These are diploid, somatic cells containing, in this species, 46 chromosomes. These cells provide the clone DNA.
2. The female reproductive egg, or sex cell containing a haploid number of chromosomes (i.e. 23 chromosomes). When enucleated (having its DNA removed), the egg becomes the host for the clone DNA, in this case, the 46 chromosomes obtained from the cumulus cells.
3. A cell of the body containing a diploid complement of chromosomes.
4. Self-referential systems are systems that refer to themselves and are known to yield paradoxes. For example: The barber of a city cuts all the men’s hair in the city who do not cut their own hair. Does the barber cut his own hair? There are more complex referential systems in set theory and other mathematical constructs, as well as in biological and other physical systems.