There is a dentist in Canada who is trying to clone John Lennon.
It sounds complicated and fantastical, and maybe it is, but it is also that simple, if you pare it down to its essence: a dentist, a molar that is said to have come from the Beatle’s mouth and a long-term plot—10, 20, however many years it takes—to produce a clone.
There are obstacles. For one, human cloning is legally prohibited in Canada. It is also not yet a scientific reality, though experts say it’s probably biologically possible, or will be soon enough. Those facts don’t perturb Dr. Michael Zuk, the dentist in question. “This is obviously science fiction at this point, but technology’s moving in that direction,” Zuk recently told Newsweek. “My prediction would be five years.”
After he gave an interview on the U.K.’s Channel 4 in April, Zuk became the subject of massive online media coverage, but since then he has laid low and clarified little about his ambitious plans.
So I reached out, using an email introduction I wish I had the privilege of using every day: “Hi, Dr. Zuk, I’m a reporter for Newsweek, and I’m intrigued by your apparent plans to clone John Lennon.”
His reply was prompt: It came later that night, while he was “working the night shift.” But he rarely talks to the media, he explained. “Trying not to do many interviews about the story as we (me & the tooth) have a person in LA working on a documentary dedicated to human cloning, ethics, science and legal issues,” he wrote. “It all sounds crazy so I’m laying low.”
I read it twice. He had used the pronoun “we” to refer to himself and a molar once in the mouth of a rock star who has been dead for 33 years. I kept pressing. He agreed to “buzz” me soon. Turns out, he wanted to clear up some misconceptions in the media.
We spoke for 30 minutes and 50 seconds the following week.
I asked—of course—how he had acquired this rare treasure. In November 2011, he explained, he spotted it online at Omega Auctions, a U.K. auction house, and thought, “Jesus, this is my big break!” So he outbid the American bidder seeking the same item and, 19,500 pounds (or just over $31,000) later, became the privileged owner of a tiny piece of John Lennon’s DNA. That’s not a modest chunk of cash, but Zuk had recently sold a dental clinic and written a book, Confession of a Former Cosmetics Dentist.
“I just knew that the tooth still had so many different avenues to be explored, including the scientific side and maybe science fiction writing,” he told me, speaking in a distinctly Canadian accent. “So I’m definitely milking the tooth for all that it’s worth, I guess you could say, right?”
Zuk confirmed the veracity of the molar because it had come directly from Lennon’s housekeeper, who signed documents from a lawyer and included son Julian Lennon’s tooth. “It comes with very legitimate paperwork and all that kind of thing,” he said.
This is not his only adventure with dead celebrities. He owns bits of Elvis Presley’s hair, models of Presley’s mouth and “one little strand” of Jimi Hendrix’s hair. Once, he was offered Shaquille O’Neal’s tooth.
But this is the first time he has taken an interest in using such an item in the service of an altogether more ambitious project: human cloning. From watching news and TV shows about cloning, Zuk learned that teeth are often used as DNA evidence. He hatched the idea while chatting and joking around with a former employee, a woman who offered to be the surrogate mother: “You’d take the DNA, you’d insert it into a cell, then you’d stimulate the cell to reproduce, then you’d insert it into a woman’s uterus to be the host. So it’s kind of almost like artificial insemination.”
But he is not sure she should be the one to take on that role. “I think there’d be thousands of people who’d realize it would be an opportunity of a lifetime,” he said. So, I ask: How will the project move forward?
The plan is to find a company that will participate in a documentary exploring “DNA sequencing and the legal and ethical issues,” Zuk told me. He added that he has a representative in Hollywood trying to drum up interest in this project, though he was vague on the specifics of the potential film. “There’s a lot of time to think these things through, and if it doesn’t work out, it certainly will be something that will be opened up in the future. You can imagine that someone like the dictator of North Korea might start popping up replicas of himself to try to perpetuate his insanity.”
That brings up another issue: ethical concerns. Cloning is, by definition, bringing a human being into the world. Zuk acknowledged the dangers to the clone himself: kidnapping, extortion, drug habits.
“I’m conflicted, of course,” Zuk said. “It’s not something I would just participate in without thinking it all the way through.” He compared it to the handling of a child star. “It’s a human being, and who is going to be the family and who’s going to be the responsible one that oversees the whole business side of it? It’d be a whole new realm of entertainment law, I’m guessing.”
It has been reported that Zuk wishes to raise the young Beatle clone as his son, offering up guitar lessons and other fatherly services. This is untrue.
“I’m not going to be the daddy,” he said. “I don’t think I would want that responsibility, a parent of one of the most famous clones in the world. I would look at the whole process as if he is part of the family, but not necessarily be the father.” Nor would he want the media harassment that would come with being the handler of a child containing the DNA that wrote “A Day in the Life.”
Still, he wishes to remain in control of the cloning process, if in fact it takes place. “I think I would probably have a little more ethical considerations than an average company which would be more enthused about their own publicity.”
None of it will happen if Yoko Ono gets her way, however. The Beatle widow’s lawyer has sent Zuk a letter asking him to abandon his plans. It was “little bit on the threatening side,” Zuk said. Defending his right to do what he wishes with the tooth, Zuk directed me to the story of Henrietta Lacks, whose Wikipedia page he has studied in depth. Lacks was the Virginia woman whose cells were cultured by a German-American scientist and became the first human immortal cell line to be used in scientific research. Lacks’ family objected to their use, but in 1990 the Supreme Court ruled that a human’s discarded tissue and cells are not that person’s personal property.
Zuk emailed me with further information on Lacks’ case. “Should Yoko get special treatment over a poor black woman’s family from the experiments of the 1950s?” he wondered. “I will not sell the DNA rights for any price without having controlling interest in the strategic decisions which ensure the same safety that any newborn would have.”
Then he sent me a link to an article claiming that Sean Lennon, the Beatle’s only child with Ono, is “furious and fed up” with the cloning efforts, as well as a mock-up of a flier for a potential science fiction film about the process.
Zuk said he’s looking for a screenwriter for the proposed movie and wondered if I’d be interested in the job. I’m still considering the offer.