This week’s Ask a ScienceBlogger question is:
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?
In short, my answer is yes. Although the number of species of mammals cloned has increased, slowly but surely, nobody is cloning their dead relatives yet. No surprise there. In 2006, though, cloning for cloning’s sake isn’t where it’s at. Instead, the future of cloning lies in its applications to biomedical research. Today, that means, among other things, the prospect of using cloning to generate unique lines of embryonic stem cells.
Dolly was cloned when I was still in middle school, a time when a potential career in science seemed distant, just as likely as the proximally more exciting but completely self-delusional prospects of careers as a professional skateboarder or, better yet, a rock star.
Still, Dolly captured the interest and imagination of people across the globe, and none more than mine. The announcement came at a time when molecular biology, genetics, and biotechnology were just coming into their own and beginning to capture the attention of the public at large. Dolly seemed to open up a world of possibilities, allowing people to place more faith in the promise of the biosciences but at the same time giving people more reason to succumb to brewing fears about technology and the future.
Now, fast forward to 2006 when the scientific community, and even society in general, has become much more blasé toward cloning.
When I was completing my last semester at Texas A&M University in April 2005, the university announced the successful cloning of a horse, the first horse cloned in North America. This gave A&M the interesting distinction of being the only institution to have cloned six different species of mammals. Without a doubt, this announcement strongly appealed to the deeply seated science nerd inside of me. How could it not? However, after the initial excitement of the unveiling of what had for over a month been a tightly guarded secret, the reaction as a whole was more of a “Who cares?”
Although the task of cloning a mammal is far from routine, with each species offering its own unique challenges, the idea of cloning a mammal is something we take for granted now. In some ways, this is a good thing, as familiarity with the idea has helped moderate some of the irrational, but very entertaining, fears about evil scientists creating armies of cloned Hitlers to take over the world. When it comes down to it, there’s really nothing that unique about a clone produced in the laboratory (pun definitely intended). Many lower organisms naturally reproduce by cloning themselves, particularly bacteria and yeast. A clone of an organism contains the same genetic material as another organism, but the similarities begin to die off pretty quickly from there. Think of pairs of identical twins that you know. You’ve probably found that each twin has a unique personality. In fact, once you got to know them, you probably noticed pretty obvious differences in their appearance as well. Along the same lines, some of the cloned mammals to date have looked very little like their parents.
What makes us who we are is a dynamic interplay of genes and the environment, nature and nurture. Some traits influenced more by genetics and others more by external factors, but the vast majority are a combination of the two. Even without noticeable environmental influences, the development of two genetically identical organisms will diverge due to random mutations and other factors. If anything, our genes are a rough guide to who we’ll become, but they’re by no means 100% deterministic.
Therefore, many of the fears surrounding cloning have little basis in reality. If you cloned someone, the clone will likely look almost the same as the original and will probably share many of the same mannerisms and proclivities, but won’t be any more identical to the original as maybe a brother or sister would be. That’s why, honestly, the prospect of cloning humans doesn’t really bother me. If you want to clone a recently deceased relative, go ahead. Fine by me. Be warned, though: you’re going to be disappointed with the results. In addition, cloning is such a laborious and expensive process that cloning for any more sinister means will be not only impractical, but virtually impossible for the foreseeable future.
So, if cloning as a means in itself is so mundane and pointless, why should we even care? What makes cloning interesting today are its potential applications to biomedical research, particularly the prospect of generating unique stem cell lines from individuals with particular traits of interest. For example, science was able to recapture the public imagination when a group of scientists reported in 2004 that they had isolated stem cells from cloned human embryos and then later reported that they were able to build on this work and generate embryonic stem cell lines from patients with a variety of medical conditions of interest. Although the results turned out to have been faked, the public and scientific enthusiasm wasn’t. Although the science in this area hasn’t advanced as far as was once thought, the enthusiasm and interest is there, and it will only be a matter of time before the science catches up to its promise (although the current restrictions in the US on funding of embryonic stem cell research are really holding this progress back).
In the meantime, I’m sure we can look forward to some fun new cloned species. So, who’s going to be next?
I’m going for the jackalope. Please let it be the jackalope….