Dolly is 10 Years Old

I’ve missed the last two Ask A ScienceBlogger questions. My lack of answers were due to a combination of being busy and apathy toward the questions — more busy with the science education question and apathy for the science policy question. But this week’s question is on cloning, so I kind of feel obligate to post a response (being a genetics blog and all) despite not really being interested in the topic. So, they’re asking us:

On July 5, 1996, Dolly the sheep became the first successfully cloned mammal. Ten years on, has cloning developed the way you expected it to?

Ten years ago, I was in between my sophomore and junior years of high school. At that point, I had taken an introductory biology course my freshman year and would be taking AP Biology in the coming fall. I was hardly in a position to make any predictions regarding the future of cloning. Sure, I understood the basic concepts at work, but the ethical and technical implications were beyond me.

I am among the first batch of scientists to be trained entirely in the post-molecular-revolution age. Molecular cloning is mundane and ordinary to me, and cloning of whole organisms just isn’t all that fascinating. I have a difficult time envisioning any great benefits of cloning vertebrates (or animals or almost any living organism). Cloning does not produce an exact copy; an organism is the product of gene by environment interactions. The genotype is extremely important, but so is the developmental environment (ranging from the mRNA and proteins a mother puts into an egg to the encounters an animal has after birth/hatching).

I am not familiar with the medical applications of cloning (I don’t see us harvesting organs from our clones any time soon), and I can’t imagine many uses for cloned animals (other than showing off technological achievements). Agriculturally, cloned organisms represent a Catch-22. On the one hand, if you can clone a successful individual — whether it be a crop that produces a large fruit or a chicken that lays large eggs — you may find yourself with a windfall of profits. On the other hand, you have left your crop, herd, or flock evolutionarily vulnerable, as it is devoid of genetic variation. One new pathogen could wipe out your entire business, negating any benefit you earned by copying your super individual.

Returning back to the question at hand, my position on cloning has not changed in the ten years since Dolly was born: I was apathetic to it then, I’m apathetic to it now.


  1. #1 MissPrism
    July 11, 2006

    In my final year at uni, the molecular biologists all got taken on a bus trip to meet Dolly (we geneticists had to stay behind and work).

    Apparently they got very tetchy if you asked about her telomeres.

  2. #2 Peter Ellis
    July 12, 2006

    I can’t imagine many uses for cloned animals

    Biomanufacturing. Say you’ve engineered cows to produce in their milk, you’re left with a problem: how do you scale up to full manufacturing capability? Yes, you can breed the new gene in (assuming it has no fertility implications. It’ll take you many years to scale up to a production herd, starting from your 1 recombinant individual.

    Of course, once you have a seed pool of a couple of hundred/thousand, breeding more isn’t a problem, the problem is getting over the initial slow stage of an exponential expansion. If you have reliable cloning, you can jump straight from 1 to 1000 animals.

    We do it already with bacteria, except it’s asexual reproduction rather than cloning – but many proteins won’t express and fold correctly in bacteria, you really want a large mammalian manufacturing system that scales up and produces stuff in bulk without having to kill them to get it out. Preferably in solution to aid extraction/purification. That means cows or other milk animals

  3. #3 RPM
    July 12, 2006

    That sounds like a wonderful way to leave your herd evolutionarily vulnerable. It doesn’t seem like a good idea to have a highly inbred population that may be exposed to a pathogen they have no answer to.