Week In Review

by by Barry Elkinton & Rick Salame

The Year Is Wet Behind The Ears

Ancient Infants

George Church is bearded and stocky, but he is no Neanderthal. The 58-year-old Harvard University professor is, in fact, one of the most important Homo sapiens in the newfangled field of synthetic biology. Synthetic biologists, like Church, modify and create genetic material to produce novel and useful life forms—think lab-born algae that digest dangerous industrial compounds. It’s hardly work cut out for a caveman.

But since a January 18 interview with Der Spiegel, it’s cavemen—Neanderthals, to be precise—for which Church has become known. Church predicted that Neanderthal cloning will soon become technologically feasible. “We can clone all kinds of mammals, so it’s very likely that we could clone a human,” Church said. Or some variation thereof: the weak-chinned, strong-browed, barrel-chested Homo neanderthalensis went extinct about 30,000 years ago. According to Church, all that would be necessary for the cloning of our evolutionary cousin—legal and ethical barriers aside—would be a willing surrogate mother from our own species. Of course, these comments weren’t a serious call for female volunteers from a bizarre Dr. Frankenstein. They were the musings of a respected biologist.

But idle musings were all that the media needed. By January 20, the Daily Mail had proclaimed, “Harvard Professor Seeks Mother for Cloned Cave Baby.” the Berliner Kurier was even more certain about the future Neanderthal birth: an article in its January 22 issue declared, “Surrogate Mother to Bear Neanderthal,” and compared Church to the scientists in Jurassic Park. The popular consensus was clear; Church was playing God, and thanks to his scientific audacity—or his obscene hubris—a Neanderthal baby was on its way.

For better or for worse, no one should be expecting a cave baby anytime soon. If scientists like Church are bordering on the Frankenstein, it’s only in the smallest and the most productive of ways. Synthetic biologists at the University of East Anglia, for example, are currently developing artificially photosynthetic materials that will efficiently generate the hydrogen needed for fuel cells. These are the advances—small, gradual, superficially uninspiring—that drive science. Progress is rarely born all at once.-SE

Fear and Loathing in Middle School

Maria Waltherr-Willard is a schoolteacher afraid of children. The 61-year-old Ohioan claims she has suffered from this phobia since 1991, but it did not significantly interfere with her teaching responsibilities until 2009, when the high school French program she taught was moved online and she was transferred to a nearby middle school.

According to the Associated Press, she claims that the seventh and eight grade students in her new class triggered her phobia and caused an increase in blood pressure that put her at risk for a stroke. Apparently, the summer between eighth and ninth grades is more transformative than previously thought; the oppressive weight of pubescence was too much to bear for Waltherr-Willard. She retired in the middle of the 2010–2011 school year and is now suing Mariemont City School District for an unspecified amount in federal district court.

According to the Associated Press, Waltherr-Willard’s lawyer claims that the school district violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires employers to reasonably accommodate disabilities, when they transferred her to the middle school. Gary Winters, the school district’s legal representative, is skeptical. “I do not believe the case has any merit,” he told the Independent. He’s doubtful the case will even get to trial, even though a trial date has been set for February 2014. Winters isn’t the only skeptic. He told the Independent that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency tasked with enforcing federal workplace discrimination law, has found no probable cause for discrimination and will not be helping her in her suit.

For those with government support, the odds aren’t bad but success is far from guaranteed. ADA-related lawsuits supported by the EEOC have had a success rate of 56.3 percent over the past 10 years, according to calculations made by the Independent based on data released by the agency. Without that support, Waltherr-Willard’s chances are certainly lower. Exactly how low is hard to say. Louise Herman, a Providence-based lawyer with extensive experience with ADA suits, told the Independent that she has never heard of a case like this one that could act as a precedent.-RS

Live Live Birth

Last August, Twitter exploded when it was reported that Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi gave birth to her first child, Lorenzo Dominic LaValle. He weighed six pounds. Snooki planned to breast feed him. But Snooki’s life is a bit like the proverbial tree falling in the forest-if it isn’t shown on reality television, did it really happen? On January 29th we finally got the confirmation we’ve been waiting for, when delivery room footage of Lorenzo’s birth was aired in a special episode, “The Final Push,” on Snooki’s current reality show, “Snooki and JWoww.” Apparently, the baby himself got to watch his own public birthday. “So hard to tweet and hold my now 14lb Lorenzo lol!” said Snooki while live-tweeting the episode. “Hope you guys are enjoying this episode! LOVE U XO.”

The birth itself was, well, pretty standard, complete with chants of “Push, push, push,” and tears of joy at the baby’s first breath. Snooki came to the hospital prepared, with a leopard print top, full makeup and her signature updo ready for the cameras. In fact, given that Snooki was in labor for 26 hours, she looked awesome and so pretty. Apart from Lorenzo’s father, Jionni Lavalle, describing the placenta as “a big bloody stingray flapping out of her vagina,” nothing seemed terribly unusual at the delivery room.

Then the circumcision happened. Snooki wanted to keep the foreskin for her scrapbook along with the umbilical cord, but the doctors wouldn’t let her. Still, this archival disappointment was small potatoes compared to Snooki’s worst fear-that something would go wrong during the procedure. “I was nervous for Lorenzo, but everything came out fine,” said Snooki. “His penis looks awesome. He’s going to have a good life.”

So yes, it finally happened-Snooki gave birth to Lorenzo, and the whole world got to see it. Technically, of course, Lorenzo was born August 26th, but in my book, he’ll always be an Aquarius.-BE