Remember Woo Suk Hwang? Of course you do. He was the South Korean scientist who got the first stem cells from a cloned embryo. This is a big deal, what with cloning being a bit of a hot topic, and stem cell research even more of a hot topic in certain countries. It was a massive deal in South Korea where Dr Hwang was made a national hero for beating the rest of the world at this immensely difficult task.

Except it turned out that during the period of peer review (which should have been done before the announcement) his results could not be replicated and he was outed as a fraud. He had actually been using embryos created from his female research assistants. National hero become disgraced, South Korea hides a bit and gets so sciencephobic it makes a film about a genetically mutated monster: The Host. (Which would be good enough for me if it was the only upshot). So far, so BAD SCIENCE cautionary tale. You don’t go straight to the press without checking your results, you cannot fake the scientific community*.

Except there has been a twist. Examining his results, the Stem Cell Institute in the US, published in the journal CELL STEM CELL has suggested that from his results he may have actually done something even more impressive than clone a human for stem cells. The embryos from his research assistants may have been spontaneous generated in the jiggery pokery, ie parthenogenesis. That’s baby’s made without a daddy to you and me. With the possible and hard to prove exception of Jesus, there has been no recorded human case of parthenogenesis, where all the material to make an embryo comes from a single parent. To do this spontaneously from an human egg is new, and this journal article explains their reasoning. This BBC article tries to put it in laymans terms. Take yr pick.

So what does this mean for Hwang. His national shaming and subsequent fraud trials have dirtied his name at home and in the scientific community. But in his obfuscation of the source of his embryos there may be a technique for this kind of spontaneous genesis. This is a considerably bigger deal that his original big claim. Parthenogenesis is known to happen in other animals (and in Jurassic Park), but the ethics of using stem cells from a parthenogenetically created embryo could be a lot less complex. Unless one considers this as a Jesus style thing, in which case the second coming was scuppered in a test tube in Seoul. Nevertheless you can’t help but feel for Dr Hwang, who lied and took the consequences, when perhaps in his lab was something even more impressive. Seoul would have been renamed Hwangtown if he’d spent a bit more time working, and not so much bullshitting.

*Actually, the History of Science has proven that if there is one community who repeated fall for hoaxes, its the scientific one…