An Infinite Loop: The Increasingly Common Business of Cloning

 Dolly the sheep, taxidermied and in a museum. Image by neverbutterfly

Dolly the sheep, taxidermied and in a museum. Image by neverbutterfly

Cloning: A method by which an organism is produced that is identical in DNA to a single ancestor or donor. It is a concept that may seem more at home in science fiction than the real world, but cloning has become increasingly prominent over the past twenty years. In 1996, Dolly the sheep became the first animal cloned from the adult cells of another animal. The process has advanced greatly since then, and cloned animals have begun to emerge as an economic and social force.


Pets

Science has confirmed what pet owners have known for a long time, that losing a pet can be just as traumatic as losing a close human loved one.  It is likely this devastation that is the root of a pet cloning industry.

An owner fearing the loss of a beloved pet can work with a number of companies in the United States or abroad to prepare cells of their animal for cloning. This sort of genetic “rebirth” doesn’t come cheap; The US-based company Viagen Pets offers dog cloning for $50,000 and cat cloning for $25,000. This leaves pet cloning far out of reach of the average pet owner. However, even those that can afford it may end up disappointed.  

Just like identical twin humans might share DNA but be widely different in other respects, cloned pets can be quite dissimilar from their originals. DNA isn’t the only thing that affects personality, or even appearance. Small environmental changes in the womb and after birth can play a role, as can differences in a person or animal’s early months and years. In cloned animals, coat colors will be the same, but markings often differ. Some owners have noted major differences in personality as well.

Though cloning a pet may help keep grief at bay, it is not a true method for achieving immortality for our furry companions.


 Adolfo Cambiaso stands with Cuartetera 01 - 06. Photo by Alan Meeker.

Adolfo Cambiaso stands with Cuartetera 01 - 06. Photo by Alan Meeker.

Horses

Mid-range polo horses can cost around $20,000, but at higher levels of the sport, the sky’s the limit. However, now polo players have another option beyond simply purchasing a horse: They can have one cloned. This is exactly what polo star Adolfo Cambiaso decided to do with his prized mare, Cuartetera. He was so impressed by her temperament and skill that he had her cloned not just once, but six times. The resulting clones were named Cuartetera 01 through 06, and they caused quite a stir in the sport as they entered the competitive scene.

Polo horses aren’t the only ones being cloned. Racehorses, pet horses, and even rodeo bucking horses have been duplicated. Many clone their horse out of fondness or wanting another copy of an amazing athlete, and there’s one other major draw to equine cloning: Breeding.

It is common practice to sterilize male and female horses to prevent reproduction. If a sterilized horse proves to be exceptional years later, the owners may regret that their horse is unable to breed. In these cases, they can turn to cloning to create a copy of their horse that is still reproductively intact and able to continue their bloodline. Exceptional racing mules are sometimes cloned for similar reasons. Mules are the infertile offspring of donkeys and horses and never had the chance to breed to begin with.

Cloning still remains controversial in equestrian circles. The Jockey Club will not register a horse conceived by any method other than natural reproduction, meaning clones need not apply. The American Quarter Horse Association has similar rules against admitting cloned horses. Still, progress is being made. Many other international registries lack this reluctance, and accept cloning as just another technology used for horse breeding.


Other livestock

Cloning provides a unique advantage when it comes to livestock like cows. When a cow is slaughtered in the United States, its beef is given a grade. Only 2-5% of beef will be graded as “prime,” the top rating possible. Since grading is done after slaughter, a cow can’t exactly be bred after its meat quality is determined. That’s where cloning comes in. Cloning allows a meat producer to take a prime cut of meat and genetically resurrect the animal, creating a copy that can be bred. The offspring of these clones can  inherit the genes for superior meat, and continue building on the lineage.

Though it’s hard to come by the exact numbers on how common cloning is in the food industry, it’s safe to assume that clones remain relatively rare. Not only is it an expensive process, it is unpopular with consumers who are increasingly interested in where their meat comes from and how animals were treated prior to slaughter. Rather than cloning, many ranchers opt to genetically test their herd instead to identify markers associated with meat quality. However, there is nothing different about cloned meat that would make it unsafe for human consumption. Perhaps someday we’ll be seeing steaks from cloned cows in our supermarkets (or even more likely, lab-grown meat with no animal slaughter necessary!).


 Extinct Thylacines.

Extinct Thylacines.

Cloning species back from the brink

Though the cloning of domesticated animals can be seen as for human benefit, cloning could also be used to preserve wild species, especially endangered ones. Now that companies have explored ways to clone domesticated cats, dogs, cows, sheep, and other animals, they can use that knowledge to better clone their wild relatives.

This concept has already shown promise. In 2001, an endangered European mouflon lamb was cloned, the first cloned endangered animal to survive past infancy. In Louisiana, they are working on cloning rare cat species for conservation. They put an interesting twist on cloning: They use domesticated cats as surrogates to the cloned wildcat offspring. In this way, they can clone endangered species without putting endangered mothers through the stressful process of surrogacy themselves.

This is an emerging field of research and while no one has cloned a rhinoceros yet, conservationists are beginning to take genetic and tissue samples from dwindling species in the hopes that one day the samples might be used to recreate diminished populations.

More contentiously, some scientists aim to use cloning to bring extinct species back to life, sometimes called “de-extinction.” This has already been attempted with some level of success; in 2003, a cloned Pyrenean ibex was born. However, it unfortunately died shortly after birth due to lung defects.

The Pyrenean ibex only went extinct in 2000, and several closely related species remain. The process of cloning extinct animals becomes much more complicated with species with no close relatives, or that went extinct hundreds or thousands of years ago. Even if cloning a mammoth or thylacine was simple, ethical questions would still remain. Could animals brought back from extinction be released into the wild, or would they be kept in zoos?  How many extinct individuals would have to be cloned in order to establish a population with enough genetic variability to survive inbreeding? Is de-extinction really the best use of conservation funding?

As technology advances, these questions increasingly come to the forefront. What is clear is this: Cloning is here to stay, and in the future, could reach even more parts of our lives.  

- Kate Dzikiewicz, Paul Griswold Howes Fellow