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It seems like only yesterday that Alfred Vellucci, the crusty mayor of Cambridge, Mass. during the 1970s and self-styled one-man poison pill to the burgeoning biotech industry, hauled the cloners of Harvard and MIT before the city council and gave them a lesson in English 101. “Most of
us in this room, including myself, are lay people,” he solemnly intoned during an infamous June 1976 meeting, during which the burghers debated a moratorium on experiments using recombinant DNA. “We don’t understand your alphabet. So you will spell it out for us so we’ll know exactly what you’re talking about…”

A scientist stripped of jargon, it must be said, offers a particularly forlorn form of public nakedness. Although I never found Vellucci’s scientific arguments against recombinant DNA very convincing, I have always had a grudging admiration for the populist economy with which he revised the terms of the debate. He displayed an artful ability to see that a common vocabulary was essential to resolving (or, in this case, roiling) public debate about a new technology.

“Can you make an absolute, 100 percent guarantee that there is no possible risk which might arise from this experimentation?” Vellucci asked at one point. No one could, of course. By keeping things simple-in many cases, too simple -certain words and terms assumed an aura of dread.

I thought of Vellucci and the power of simple words to shape public perceptions because of a recent news report out of Tokyo. At least 66 head of “cloned” cattle, and perhaps many more, had inadvertently been sold to Japanese consumers, unleashing fears about the the safety of bioengineered beef. Steak TATA, anyone?

There are several reasons to suspect those fears were exaggerated, starting with the fact that it is a common practice among livestock breeders to split embryos during in vitro fertilization-that is, create identical twins, or “clones”-in order to get two or more prized animals for the price of one fertilization. Moreover, the Japanese cattle apparently did not have any genes added, deleted or manipulated.

The real interest, to my mind, is the way the word “clone” continues to set society’s hair on end. Biologists have for decades been notoriously promiscuous in their use of the technical word “clone”; it can mean anything from a replicated piece of DNA to Dolly, from an identical brood of frogs to a Frankensteinian (and, to date, still hypothetical) human experiment. Outside the scientific community, the word has acquired a meaning altogether different-something eerie and unnatural-that may forever pose significant problems for the biotech industry.

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Tagged: Biomedicine

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