Thursday, April 11, 2013

Cloning -- Risky or Rewarding?

Alright, today we're going to be talking about cloning.

Now, for some out there, when you bring up cloning they immediately think of the "second" Star Wars movie. Wrong-o, Mary Lou.
 Now just to make sure we're all on the same page, cloning is where you take DNA -- just about any kind of DNA -- from an adult animal, and fuse the genetic information with electricity to a donor egg. The egg, containing the exact same genetic information as the adult from which the DNA was taken, is then placed in a surrogate mother and develops just as any other animal would, and is born just as naturally.

Now I'm going to stop right here and make this very, very clear. Human cloning should never be pursued by scientists. I'm merely going to discuss the merits and detriments of animal cloning.

As many know, Dolly the sheep was the first animal cloned, and since Dolly's birth there has been a wide variety of other animals cloned as well, ranging from ferrets to deer to the Pyrenean Ibex.

In my own home state, the Minnesota Zoo is the home to the first bovine ever cloned, a Holstein bull named "Gene." (Punny!!) Gene, along with a few Holstein heifers, were cloned by ABS Global of DeForest, Wisconsin (formerly known as the American Breeders Service). ABS Global donated the heifers for free, but Gene was worth a pretty penny; the Minnesota Zoo bought him to the tune of $20 million.

ABS Global said they let Gene go to the MN Zoo because "his genetic makeup was considered inferior to their other bulls." Now why would someone make a clone if they knew the clone wasn't going to be of any use to them?

Well to be honest, my best guess is that they made clones for the sake of making clones.
As I mentioned earlier, a lot of clones have been tried out, but the kicker is that there are a lot of issues with cloning animals. To sum up the University of Utah's webpage on animal cloning, clones have "a high failure rate, problems during development, abnormal gene expression patterns, and telomeric differences" with their original counterparts.

The page also mentions that "the success rate ranges from 0.1 to 3 percent" of animals cloned. Based on all of this information, one can see why a breeding company, such as ABS Global, would attempt to make clones, if only to see if they could.

Additionally for companies like ABS Global, if their scientists were able to find a way to successfully clone animals in a much higher rate, they could benefit greatly. The dairy industry, as an example, depends on cows that with high milk production. Not all cows are created equal, so if scientists could clone the top producers, farmers would have an even better edge on the market. The only trouble with that is that the clones are not quite identical to the original animal. Just like the aforementioned reason from the webpage above, clones can have abnormal gene expressions. This means that although the clones start off with the exact same genetic material as the original animal, the embryonic cells of the growing clones could differentiate differently, and not produce an "identical" clone.

On the other hand, cloning in the beef industry could make a huge profit -- if scientists can figure out how to clone cheaply. According to Irina Polejaeva (chief embryologist at ViaGen, a livestock-cloning lab in Austin, Texas) in "Cloned Beef: It's What's for Dinner," cloned beef cattle cost "around $15,000, versus $2,000 to produce a naturally bred animal. But the quality of the clone should be a surer bet." That's great for the companies with money to spend, but for everyday farmers, that's not a reality. So, like I mentioned before, if scientists can come up with a way to clone cheaply, then cloned cattle could take the market by storm. For the moment, I don't see it happening, at least for a little while.

Cloning is very interesting to me, and growing up, I've always been fascinated with Gene the cloned bull at the MN Zoo. I think that it's great that scientists have figured out a means to make clones, but they haven't quite perfected it yet. There could be unknown potential benefits to finding a sure-fire way to clone animals; I just can't think of any off the top of my head. All in all though, I'd say cloning is far more risky and expensive than it is rewarding, for the time being.

Thanks for reading!

(Oh and here's a picture of my favorite clone -- adorable, isn't he??)

(Courtesy of my_morgan on flickr)

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