Cloning pets unnecessary and plays on people's grief
I was devastated when my elderly dog Spot died earlier this year. Have you ever owned a dog that you have utterly adored? An animal that seems to understand you? A dog that has become a central part of your family? If you have, you'll be painfully aware of the biggest challenge of pet ownership: the fact that an animal's life is so short.
The life span of a dog or cat is usually between ten and twenty years: far shorter than our own. It's almost inevitable when you take on a pet that you'll suffer the grief and pain of their death. It's a part of the deal of pet ownership.
A South Korean company has come up with a novel way of dealing with this pain, and although it sounds like science fiction, it is now a commercially available reality. You can get your pet cloned.
Using a sample of your pet's tissue, the company will provide you with one (or more) genetically identical versions of your beloved dog. You will still need to say goodbye to your geriatric friend, but you can be consoled in your grief by a puppy which has exactly the same genetic make up as the older animal.
Pet clones are not cheap, at over €70,000, but as part of a publicity campaign to launch the service in the UK, the company is offering one lucky owner a genetic replica of their dog for free. An online competition is currently underway, and the entire process, from start to finish, will be filmed for a Channel 4 documentary which will be shown next year.
The science behind the process is fascinating. A small piece of living tissue is obtained from the dog to be cloned using a technique that's identical to minor surgery commonly done by vets e.g. when taking a biopsy to diagnose the cause of skin disease. Three small samples (6mm diameter) are recommended, usually from the back of the neck or the inside of the leg. The samples are placed in special transport containers, and shipped under refrigeration to the cloning company.
If the decision to carry out cloning is taken after the end of a pet's life, it's not necessarily too late: a viable sample can be collected up to five days after a dog's death.
It takes around four weeks for the company scientists to confirm that the tissue samples are "clonable": if, for any reason, they are not, the process stops (and you are charged a reduced fee)..
If all is well, the clone production process begins. The scientists have residential female dogs who act as egg donors: when they come into season, eggs are collected from their ovaries by a flushing process. The genetic material (the nuclei) of each donor egg, is removed, and a living cell from your pet is injected into each one. The egg and your pet's cell are then fused together, and the result is a cloned embryo, which is an identical genetic copy of your pet.
The embryo is transferred into a surrogate female dog, who will carry the embryo in her womb until it develops into a newborn puppy. Samples are then collected from the puppy to compare with your original dog, to confirm that the puppy is definitely an identical genetic copy.
The process is complicated, with many potential "fail" points. Dolly, the sheep, was the first cloned animal, back in 1996. Scientists found that it was trickier to clone dogs compared to sheep, and when the first cloned puppy was produced in 2005, the success rate was only 2%. Researchers have refined and improved their methods over the past eight years: the success rate is now up to 30%, and expected to further increase to match natural rates of fertility in the near future.
So much for the science: what about the practical reality of acquiring a precise copy of a beloved pet? Does a cloned version of your pet live up to expectations?
The genetic make-up of an animal is known as its "genotype", and there's no doubt that the clones will have an identical genotype to the original animal. However the physical manifestation of the animal - its "phenotype" - is what really counts: this is its physical appearance and its behaviour.
While this is obviously strongly influenced by genes, there are also strong inputs from other factors, including many random happenings that cannot be replicated. The physical environment, nutrition, and interactions with other animals and humans will all have significant effects on the development of the clone.
The artificially created dog will not be the same animal as the original, much-loved pet. The best comparison is that the young pup will be the equivalent of a younger identical twin of the donor animal. And if you have ever known human identical twins, you'll appreciate that while they may be very similar, they are also very different from one another.
If you are extremely wealthy, then dog cloning may be a way to obtain a pet that is astonishingly similar to your original animal. But you should be warned that the new version will be a different individual, with a unique personality. If you are hoping that you will re-create the identical personality of your much-loved dog, you are likely to be disappointed. Cloning is reproduction, not reincarnation.
Cloning pets seems unnecessary to me, playing on people's grief and vulnerability. For me, a new "Spot" would just feel wrong. Spot lives on in our family memories, and that's the way it ought to be.