On July 5, 1996, a sheep was born at the Roslin Institute of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Nothing too crazy here, right? A sheep became impregnated and roughly 142 to 152 days later – the average gestation length for a sheep – a baby ewe by the name of Dolly was born. Now, what if I were to share with you that Dolly was the biological product of not one, nor two… but three “mothers”?
“How could this be humanly possible?” might be a question circumferencing your mind. For those who have not been acquainted with the fascinating story of Dolly the sheep, this particular ewe was a clone – yes, CLONE – of a mature, adult sheep. A clone, according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, is defined as “a plant or animal that is grown from one cell of its parents and that has exactly the same genes as its parents”. Thus, one of Dolly’s mothers was her genetic identical, whom a sample of DNA was harvested from; her second mother provided the donor egg used to process the DNA sample into an embryo through a process known as ‘somatic cell nuclear transfer’; and her third mother, evidently, was the sheep whom was impregnated with the artificially created embryo.
Despite being born in 1996, the official announcement that acknowledged Dolly’s presence and unusual origins was not made public until February of 1997. Since that fateful day, bioengineers from all corners of the globe began to theorize the perpetual possibilities of cloning other species of animals, as the story of Dolly provided stupendous proof that clones do not have to solely transpire from embryonic cells. Prior to Dolly’s success, it was once thought that creating a clone from an adult cell was impossible, due to the genes of adult cells being “genetically turned off, and thus could not pass on the [egg] donor’s entire genetic blueprint” (Masci 413). With this newfound evidence, the conceivability of cloning animals ranking high on the endangered species lists became a hot topic, with scientists suggesting that reproductive cloning is a practical approach to ensure that a given species never goes extinct. Likewise, if paleontologists can produce viable DNA from the bones of extinct creatures, there is no rational reason to omit the odds of resurrecting various species that thrived before our time!
Research, research, research. If there is any one notion that I wish to encourage advocates or protestors of cloning to dedicate more time and energy towards, it is the classic concept of gathering facts and information from reputable sources and formulating an opinion that is not based on feelings alone. Hence, this is why I am not here to exclusively push my personal beliefs on cloning animals, a comprehensive subject matter that is not black or white. Overall, the key philosophy that I embrace in relation to this topic is consciousness and awareness of both the potential pros and cons of cloning; a complete disregard to one perspective and its underlying interests is a mere reflection of one’s own lack of enlightenment and understanding towards the subject material at large.
No matter what one’s initial thoughts and feelings are towards the intellection of animals being cloned, it is unambiguous to admit that science has taken a deep and controversial turn. If and when cloned creatures are introduced and running free within our biosphere, society and our environment as a whole may be victim to severe implications that clones could instigate. On a speculatory note, resurrecting extinct animals could imaginably reintroduce archaic pathogen strands, along with the valid concern that de-extinct animals could “become a carrier for a deadly disease or an unintentional threat to a nearby ecosystem”, according to Stanford law professor Henry Greely in a 2013 discussion with Science magazine on the ethical landmines of de-extinction. Tangibly, clones deriving from the extinct classification could significantly disrupt the modern day food web and feasibly cause non-susceptible species (humans included!) to face extinction. These preceding apprehensions are a critical component in the process of reproductive cloning that scientists must heavily research and formally address before moving forward and making an official call on whether the Jurassic Park-esque science should be praised and mimicked, or utterly avoided.
Due in part to the process of cloning a creature being an extremely complex and intricate operation, there is bound to be tremendously more failures than successes with the creation of a viable embryo through somatic cell nuclear transfer and any subsequent pregnancy on record. For starters, let us rewind and become properly informed on how somatic cell nuclear transfer would work in any attempts to clone an extinct species.
Unlike Dolly the sheep, whose genetic identical was a living, breathing animal, there are several more steps involved in the development of an embryo from an extinct species. In many inherent case scenarios, the extracted DNA from a woolly mammoth, sabre-tooth cat, dodo bird, passenger pigeon, or a chosen dinosaur will need to be supplemented with the genes of a “close living relative”, as ancient DNA has a tendency to be “too fragmented to use to create an organism” (Mueller, “Recipe for a Resurrection”). Given that the woolly mammoth’s closest living relative is the Asian elephant, genetic engineers will “identify the differences between the elephant’s genome and the mammoth’s” and “design experiments to tweak the elephant’s genome, changing a few DNA bases at a time, until it looks more mammoth-like” (Shapiro, “Long Live The Mammoth”). Through the use of a vector, “a DNA molecule that carries foreign DNA into a host cell”, the designated spliced chromosomes from the Asian elephant will find themselves expressed in with the rest of the woolly mammoth’s unique DNA (Phillip McClean, “Cloning Vectors”). Once the woolly mammoth’s DNA sequence has been rewritten with the missing blanks filled in, the process of somatic nuclear transfer will commence.
As previously implied, somatic nuclear transfer is the compelling technique of transferring a cell’s genetic material into a denucleated egg, which will then be aroused by “a tiny jolt of electricity or a few drops of chemicals” to manipulate the cell into rapidly dividing until an embryo forms (Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, “Cloning Debate”). Consequentially to a prosperous embryo in a petri dish being recognized by the attending engineers, the embryo will be implanted into the surrogate mother; in the synopsis of cloning an extinct species, the surrogate mother will be the animal’s closest living relative.
The overall dilemma of a clone pregnancy alone indubitably raises a great quantity of affliction and burden, to the point that animal welfare organizations – including the U.S. Humane Society – act of the most active and colossal critics and opponents towards cloning. Ethics wise, many may take into account the plausible inhumane treatment of the three “mothers” (the genetic original, the egg donor, and the surrogate) involuntarily used in the cloning process; the surrogate mother gathering the most empathy, as a pregnancy with a non-blood related creature could cause scathing and fatal medical issues. If the pregnancy does gawk a rare takeoff, the gestation could induce the surrogate mother to contract disease and infection by way of carrying a non-blood related creature, either of the same species or a differing one (such as an Asian elephant gestating a woolly mammoth). On behalf of concern towards the developing fetus, there is a vast volume of literature that cites past cloning attempts as possessing “high rates of genetic abnormalities and chronic diseases” in addition to “miscarriage, stillbirth, and early death” (Fiester 331). Genetic abnormalities, malfunctions, and mutations, professedly, would see an even greater upsurge of cases if and when science decides to take the plunge and attempt to resurrect an extinct species, on the grounds that DNA splicing research and technology is not perfected.
Similarly, the concept of cloning is a dear enemy of various churches and religious affiliations, with the Catholic Church being a loud voice in the debate. As human beings are the manipulators and schemers behind cloning, the controversial topic of “playing God” explicitly enters the picture. In Autumn Fiester’s extended article titled Ethical Issues in Animal Cloning, she brings to light a thought-provoking series of questions in relation to life being created artificially: “ought we to be creating life in this manner? Is it our place to do this?” (Fiester 337). Notwithstanding, the practice of cloning can intriguingly be viewed as a way for human beings to exercise divine-like ambitions, parallel to the argument that cloning and genetic engineering crosses an imperative line in the creation of life.
Peeling away at a deeper layer to the cloning conversation are ideas that stem from individuals who are proponents of cloning. For if extinct creatures were to walk amongst us, it is suggestive that their presence could potentially “lead towards ecological and environmental benefits”, as well as providing “new information or new knowledge the world may be lacking since they became extinct” (Slack 3). The abeyant and novel idea that a cure for cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, Ebola, polio, diabetes, AIDS, and even common colds could be in arm’s reach as a direct repercussion to cloning extinct species, might be an influential factor in one’s own personal verdict towards being either an advocate or antagonist of cloning. However, is this unknown – yet alluring – possibility alone a valid reason for us to explore the biological resurrection of extinct animals? A clear, concise, and unbiased answer is manifestly absent at this particular point in time. Ultimately, we will never know the feasible benefits that extinct creatures could deliver unless we either travel back in time or legitimately undertake the controversial practice itself.
Ever since the mass frenzy and shock that Dolly the sheep generated in the late-1990s, one thing is for sure: the widespread controversy and debate behind animal cloning will never be conventionally settled. Nevertheless, “many farm animals and [domestic] cats have successfully been cloned” since the late-1990s for credible reasons (Farrell and Carson-Dewitt, “Cloning: An Overview”). Private companies such as Genetic Savings & Clone, ViaGen Pets, and My Friend Again profit on individual’s substantial longing to clone their beloved and recently deceased pets. Likewise, bioengineers and agriculturalists have collaborated to clone livestock who possess desirable traits, such as cows with more meat on their frames and farm animals who are grass-fed as opposed to grain-fed, as “grain-fed animals could reduce erosion caused by crops” and “because grass does not need fertilizers” (Slack 6). Intrinsically, there may be breeds of animals that are deemed to be acceptable to undergo cloning, while other types of species (such as those that are extinct) are fundamentally and objectively off limits.
Once again, I am not here to push either a specific agenda when it comes to animal cloning. As repeatedly shown through the evidence and examples supplied in this assessment, the enthrallment and fascination with cloning that biology enthusiasts’ possess is no black or white manner. The potential rewards and advantages to cloning cannot be sanctioned without acknowledging the ostensible risks and disadvantages.
Dolly, in closing, passed away on February 14, 2003 at the age of six; half the number of years of the anticipated life expectancy for a sheep. According to biological investigations and tests conducted on Dolly, it was shown that her telomeres were notably shorter than the average six-year-old sheep, causing her to age at an accelerated rate. With all due respect, there is no doubt in mind that we would not be having this conversation today if Dolly had not sparked a fevered flame towards the controversially captivating subject of animal cloning.