Clones- precise genetic copies of living creatures – used to be the stuff of science fiction. They are now a reality: a South Korean company has just launched its dog cloning service in the UK. For £63000, they will create a carbon-copy of your pet, either from a biopsy of a living dog, or from tissue harvested from a recently deceased animal.
If you cannot afford this, one lucky owner is being offered 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 a pet by collecting a small skin biopsy from the back of the neck or the inside of the leg. If the decision to carry out cloning is taken after the end of a dog’s life, it’s not too late: a viable sample can be collected up to five days after a dog’s death. The samples are shipped in refrigerated containers to the cloning company.
The cloning company has 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 one of the living cells from your pet is injected into each egg. 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 dog. The embryo is transferred into a different 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.
There are many questions about the science, including welfare concerns for the donor and surrogate female dogs, and the wider issue of the possibility of the same methods being used to create cloned humans. If you reached old age without children, wouldn’t it be intriguing to create a child that’s a mini version of yourself? You could then die in peace, knowing that “you” were still alive and seventy years younger.
The science and the ethical debates are interesting, but what about the practical reality of acquiring a precise copy of a beloved pet? Would a cloned version of your dog live up to your expectations?
There’s no doubt that the clone will have an identical genotype to the original animal, but the worldly manifestation of the animal – the “phenotype” – is what really matters. The phenotype includes your pet’s appearance, behaviour, mannerisms and other ideosyncracies. This is partly dictated by the genotype, but it’s also strongly affected by other factors, such as the physical environment, diet, and social interactions. If you took a dozen puppies with identical genotypes and subjected them to different rearing environments, you would end up with a dozen dogs that were distinctly different from one another. They would not be “the same animals”, any more than two human identical twins are “the same people”.
There’s no doubt that the technology is impressive, but is it ethically sound? Is there a risk that vulnerable people, grieving deeply for recently deceased pets, will waste their life savings chasing the illusion that they are buying a young version of their much-missed pet?
If you are exceptionally wealthy (or the lucky winner of the competition), then cloning could be a way of obtaining a similar type of animal to a much-loved pet. But before signing on the dotted line, you need to remember a simple fact: your pet is being copied, not resurrected.