A word (or two) about hybrids

They were the very first hybrid sport utility transportation. Mules. That’s what I’m talking about. To a lot of people, mules represent the best possible example of that beast we call hybrid. And although it’s true they can’t reproduce like us — and the birds and the bees — they can be cloned.

It seems poetic justice. Mules are, after all, products of humans meddling with nature. The first mules may have been happy accidents, results of horses and donkeys being kept in (domesticated) closer proximity than they would maintain in their wild state. Whatever the history, the future holds the possibility of making exact duplicates of the best mules, or allowing bloodlines to carry on well past the prime breeding lives of the original sire and dam.

I think it’s way cool. I love mules. Maybe it’s the big ears. Zebras also have big ears. That must be it.

But mules are no more than a small tip of a giant hybrid iceburg. We make hybrids all the time. Agriculture is full of them. Seedless grapes (yum). My Mr. Lincoln roses. Disease and pest resistant grains. The list goes on.

Now we have cars with hybrid engines that run on gasoline or electric batteries, or that can use gasoline made from petroleum products or alcohol distilled from corn cobs. A lot of us make our own hybrids. I have an old lamp in the living room — a torchierre — that used to take a three-way light bulb. I turned the knob once for low light, again for brighter light, and a third time for strong reading light. That was the option before dimmer switches came along. Now there’s a chain in place of the knob. I pull the chain, and a compact flourescent bulb lights up — and uses a small fraction of the power needed by the old bulb on it’s lowest setting. And I still have my antique torchierre. Cool, huh?

I’ve been reading a book that I first read about twenty years ago, and will probably talk about again. The Lives of a Cell, By Lewis Thomas is a collection of essays he wrote for the New England Journal of Medicine (1971 – 1973) generally titled “Notes of a Biology Watcher.” One of his essays is titled “Some Biomythology” in which he talks about various mythical hybrid beasties (think of the hippogryf that Harry Potter rode). He makes the point that, given what we now know about genetics and the mechanisms of evolution, these creatures could never exist, except in our imaginations. The intriguing question, though, is “why do we create them?” Are we manifesting artistic expresssions of a basic part of our own nature — that we are all patchwork quilts made up of scraps and leftovers of other organisms? Because throughout the book, Thomas returns to the notion that each human being is really a community. And in this essay he makes a particular point that there are organisms , recently discovered (at that time), that rival anything we’ve dreamed up historically to place in these bestiaries of impossible hybrids.

Keeping in mind that he was writing these essays in the first years following the publication of The Origin of Eukaryotic Cells (1970), a book by Lynn Margulis that brought together all the data and made the definitive case for seeing the cells that make up Homo sapiens as co-ops of previously separately living organisms, it’s easy to see his fascination with the idea, and why he keeps returning to it. For most of us, these days, it’s no more outlandish an idea than that the universe is expanding, or that the earth orbits the sun.

In the essay, “Organelles as Organisms,” Thomas opens with the observation that this revolution in biology has caused little upheaval — that, in fact, “Questions about the merits of genetic engineering, the cloning of desirable human beings from single cells, and even, I suppose, the possibility that two heads might actually be better than one, are already being debated at seminars.”

Lewis Thomas died in 1993, so he missed the first successful cloning of a large mammal — Dolly the sheep — in 1996. Judging by the amount of humor he showed throughout the book, I think he would have been highly amused in 2003 when the most successful cloning effort to date produced Idaho Gem, Idaho Star, and Utah Pioneer — three identical MULES!

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