Why does Korea lead the world in cloning research?

Lessons for the U.S. from abroad.
Oct. 19 2005 1:15 PM

The Seoul of Clones

Solving a biotech mystery: Why South Korea leads the world in stem-cell research.

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The genius behind South Korea's cloning industry. Click image to expand.
The genius behind South Korea's cloning industry

The Chopstick Theory of Scientific Supremacy goes like this: Koreans eat with narrow, metal chopsticks. Nabbing grains of rice with slippery, steel sticks requires a surgeon's dexterity. That's why Koreans have mastered extraordinarily precise "micromanipulation" of eggs and embryos required for stem-cell and cloning research. Westerners with their clunky forks—and even other Asians with their thick, grippy wooden chopsticks—can't hope to compete with the dexterous Koreans.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

The Chopstick Theory is how Hwang Woo-suk, the world's greatest cloner, accounts for his nation's stem-cell success. The theory has undeniable appeal: It's exotic, it's funny, and it's even partly true. But it only begins to explain a peculiar anomaly of global science: how South Korea, a nation of only 48 million people and no history of biotech accomplishment, has emerged as the world capital of stem-cell and cloning research.

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Yesterday Hwang and his colleagues announced that they are opening a stem-cell library in Seoul. The library, the first of its kind, will create 100 or so cell lines a year to supply the world's scientists. Americans, whose stem-cell investigations have been hampered by Bush administration policies and funding restrictions, are expected to be the bank's best customers. The bank is just the latest first from Korean stem-cell researchers, who make some new, jaw-dropping advance practically every month. In July, Hwang's lab announced that it had cloned the first dog. This followed May's disclosure that the lab had cloned the first customized embryonic stem cells. Last year, Hwang and his colleagues were first to clone human embryos and first to extract stem cells from them. Hwang was also first to clone a cow, and one of his former students was first to clone a cat. Even the cloning weirdos have South Korean ties: In 2002, scientists connected to the Raelian cult claimed (falsely) to have cloned the first baby, using South Korean embryos and mothers.

There is no clear reason why this future should be happening in Seoul. South Korea has only a few dozen stem-cell researchers, compared with more than 600 in the United States. The Korean government spends only $10 million or so a year on stem-cell and cloning research, less than one-twentieth of what the U.S. government disburses. Fellow Asian Tiger Singapore has spent $500 million to build "Biopolis," a huge bioscience campus. By contrast, Hwang's lab at Seoul National University, responsible for most of the Korean advances, gets by on only a couple million dollars a year.

And yet there they are in Seoul, cheerfully cloning for the brave new world.

Why?

For starters, the country is not preoccupied with moral questions about the beginning of life. Unlike its Asian neighbors, Korea has a huge and powerful Christian community, with strong ties to the evangelical American churches that have bollixed up stem-cell research in the United States. Evangelical Protestants make up a quarter of the South Korean population, and Catholics are another 6 percent. Yet this has not translated into a moral movement against stem-cell research. Korean Protestantism is relatively new, only a century old. Prof. James Grayson, an expert in Korean religion at Sheffield University, says that Korean Christians—who have spent that century under occupation, at war, and then rebuilding a destroyed and colonized nation—have been busy with more practical moral questions of human rights, justice, and economic development. Whether life begins at conception, at implantation, at quickening, at birth—these abstract theological questions are distant from the daily demands of Christianity in Korea. (Non-Christian Koreans are not interested in these issues either.) The result is an entirely different approach to life issues. For example, despite a nearly absolute ban on abortion, Korea has one of the highest abortion rates in the developed world because the government looks away and no one protests. Similarly, the moral wrestling that has crippled American stem-cell research is absent. This liberates Korean scientists from exhausting debate and frees their research from condemnation. As Jose Cibelli, a Michigan State professor who collaborates with Hwang, puts it: "It really helps that every time [Korean scientists] give a talk, they don't have to have an argument about whether an embryo is a person."

In the nature-versus-nurture debate, Americans tend to come out for nurture. Our strong democratic ethos insists that anyone is capable of anything and that genes are secondary. This is much less true in Korea. Blood and genes are fundamental to Korean identity. Korea is the most ethnically homogeneous big country in the world. Practically everyone can trace their bloodlines, and a traditional clan system regulates marriage. Koreans think about themselves in explicitly genetic terms, and this makes them more sympathetic to genetic research than Americans, who tend to get queasy about such tampering. Similarly, Koreans are extremely open to medical self-improvement: Korean cosmetic-surgery rates are among the highest—by some accounts the highest—in the world.

Korean fascination with bloodlines nurtures local stem-cell research in another way. Korean couples face enormous pressure to have their own genetic children, which has fueled one of the most vigorous assisted-reproduction industries in the world. According to Shin Young Moon, obstetrics professor at Seoul National and director of the Stem Cell Research Center, Korea has 95 IVF centers, and 4,000 IVF births occur every year. Korea's success rates for traditional IVF are as good as ours, says Shin, and its success rates for more specialized forms of assisted reproduction are even better. The IVF clinics have trained a generation of technicians with incredible lab skills. This outstanding technical ability—perhaps enhanced by steel chopsticks—explains why Korean stem-cell researchers can perform micromanipulations (such as gently squeezing DNA out of a single egg) that scientists in other countries struggle to master.

Korean scientists aren't just more technically skilled, they are also more diligent. Korean scientists work much harder than Americans. At Hwang's lab, everyone works every day of the week and holidays. This is not hyperbole. Hwang never takes a vacation, and neither do his underlings. In some branches of science—such as pure math or theoretical physics—this mania for work wouldn't matter much, but in stem-cell research, it's incredibly valuable. This research is repetitive, tedious, and factorylike. It rewards the persistent. Hwang's lab cloned and transferred more than 1,000 embryos into 123 dogs to make a single cloned puppy. "That tells you how single-minded they are. If it was me, I would have given up at the 10th transfer," says Hwang collaborator Cibelli.

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