Jim Fleming: We love our pets. We often cannot imagine our life without them. One day, they will die and we’ll be left to carry on alone…or will we? Is cloning the solution to this problem? Emily Anthes is the author of "Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling up to Biotech’s Brave New Beast." So, what exactly is a clone?
Emily Anthes: Well, there are a couple of technical definitions of a clone. Scientists talk about, for instance, cloning genes, which is just copying a gene in the lab. But, when it’s used in public discussion really it means one thing, and that’s an animal or a creature that is an identical twin of another creature. It’s essentially an exact genetic copy.
Fleming: I don’t think there’s any way to talk about cloning now without talking about Dolly who was a lamb born, when 1996 or so?
Anthes: That’s right.
Fleming: Quite a while ago, but, it changed everything, didn’t it?
Anthes: It did. Dolly was significant because she was the first clone of an adult mammal. Scientists had had some success previously cloning embryos from say, frogs, but that’s not as useful from a commercial standpoint. If you want to make a copy of a champion racehorse, for instance, or a beloved pet, you want to clone the adult, you don’t want to clone an embryo because you don’t know if the animal is going to be superlative or not.
Fleming: So after she was born, things changed, right? They were able to do things they hadn’t been about to do before.
Anthes: Exactly, for one thing it really launched the public discussion on cloning and brought that to the forefront. But it also presented all sorts of new opportunities for researches, particularly agricultural researchers who were very excited about this technology. There is big money in breeding great horses or great bulls and cloning gives livestock owners and ranchers a new way to make exact genetic copies of their best performers. So there was a lot of interest in taking this technology and putting it to use in the livestock industry.
Fleming: It’s worth remembering, I guess, as you do in the beginning of the book that we have spent hundreds of years trying to make another generation that is as good as the generation that came before. We’ve bred horses, we’ve bred dogs, bred cattle I imagine, but this isn’t the same as that. It’s a huge leap forward, isn’t it?
Anthes: Yes, it takes some of the guesswork out of selective breeding. Of course, as I also talk about, cloning has limitations and there’s no guarantee that just because the animal you start with was a champion racehorse that the clone will be as well. But at least you know you’re starting with the exact same genetic material and in theory that gives you a better shot of replicating whatever success you had.
Fleming: So after Dolly was born, what happened? Was there a huge leap with all sorts of other clones suddenly in the world?
Anthes: It wasn’t sudden, but what was sudden, I think, was all the sudden a whole bunch of other labs deciding hey, we’ve got to try this. So rather than trying to make another sheep what you saw was a lot of different researchers trying to clone other species. So slowly we saw the first cloned cows, the first cloned deer, the first cloned cats. You had new species being cloned in this way.
Fleming: One of the things that was kind of fascinating and I guess again, caught the public’s eye was something that happened at Texas A&M not long after Dolly’s birth, I think. And that was what do you call it? It’s not the pet revolution, it’s like that.
Anthes: Yeah, pet cloning essentially. There’s huge interest in this. It’s perhaps, in retrospect, it’s not surprising given how many people feel intensely attached to their pets. But, the theory then was if you had a pet you loved and it went on to the great kennel in the sky, then wouldn’t cloning be a wonderful way to get a new copy of it. A wealthy pet owner actually approached the scientists at Texas A&M and said I’m going to give you 3.7 million dollars to try and make a clone of my dog. It was originally just supposed to be sort of a research project funded by this millionaire, but, of course, once the public got wind of it the researchers were flooded with phone calls. Everyone wanted to know how they could get in on this, how they could sign their pets up for cloning.
Fleming: This was what was called the Missyplicity Project?
Anthes: That’s right, the millionaire’s dog, the dog that he wanted to clone, was a Border Collie mix named Missy, so there was the Missyplicity Project. The company they then founded to clone people’s pets was called Genetic Savings and Clone, and so on.
Fleming: [laugh] Well, I guess the question that immediately follows is was there another Missy? Did they successfully clone the Border Collie?
Anthes: Yes, eventually. The original project was not a success. The Texas researchers did not manage to get a copy of Missy. As it turns out, for a variety of reasons, dog eggs are much harder to work with than cat eggs or cow eggs and so they just didn’t figure it out. Years later, some scientists in Korea eventually did clone Missy, they actually cloned three of her, so there are three Missy copies now running around out there.
Fleming: It’s important to note that this isn’t really as simple as it sounds. It’s not as if though once Dolly was cloned suddenly it was possible to do whatever you wanted. It doesn’t always work, in fact, it doesn’t often work, does it?
Anthes: That’s right. It’s incredibly inefficient process. Although most scientists can get a clone out of this whole process if they want to but it takes a lot of failed attempts. You often have to create dozens or even hundreds of cloned embryos and only some of them will be viable in the womb, only some of them will make it to term, and maybe only one or two out of a hundred embryos will actually be born and survive its birth.
Fleming: It shows a lot of determination that people clearly want this to happen.
Anthes: Yes, and it also, of course, raises ethical questions about are we willing to bear these costs of these stillbirths, all these cloned embryos, in order to get one special animal.
Fleming: I guess one of the first answers that there are, or seem to be, a lot of people that want to have especially their pets; their cats, their dogs, the animals that have become close to them, they’d like to have them again.
Anthes: That’s right, and that’s something that actually unsettled the researchers that were trying to do this dog and cat cloning is they worried that pet owners, because of their devotion to their animals, might actually get taken advantage of. It’s still an incredibly expensive procedure. There are two companies in South Korea where you can send your dog’s cells to have cloned but, it’s $100,000 to do that and scientists worry that people would think they were getting their same dog back and that’s just not the case. You’re, of course, getting an identical twin and because it’s born so much later and potentially has a different upbringing, it’s going to be a different animal. It’s not the same pet and that’s why the scientists sort of started repeating this mantra, which is: cloning is reproduction, it’s not resurrection.
Fleming: At the end of the book, you write about looking into your crystal ball of biotechnology, is that what you see when you gaze into it?
Anthes: An increase in cloning?
Anthes: I do think it will become more common. It has become more common, particularly in the livestock industry. And I think we could see it being used for interesting applications. For instance, cloning animals that are resistant to various diseases, which would be a great breakthrough, I think. There’s been some work on that already. And I think we’ll see more of those things start to happen. Whether it ever becomes a totally mainstream method of animal reproduction, I’m not sure. But, I’m certain we’ll see more of it. Fleming: Emily Anthes is the author of "Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts."