Yesterday the Guardian ran an article about a South Korean researcher by the name of Insung Hwang who is offering to Samsung our pets for the low price of $100,000 as they reach the end of their lives. Cloning has come a long way over the last decade and it's gaining a lot of traction, particularly in the area of human organ transplants1. I've shared my thoughts on this topic in the past so won't get into the discussion here, but instead look at something in the Guardian article that caught my eye2.
Cloning an animal is by no means an easy feat. Tissue samples are taken from the host, and an egg is extracted from another animal. From here the DNA from the ovum is replaced with that of the animal to be duplicated. The cells are then encouraged to multiply and become a near exact replica of the original organism. This is far from an exact science, and problems can occur. The most common issues that Hwang mentioned were animals being born with thickened necks or tongues, which can lead to breathing problems for the animal.
But these things are expected to happen every now and then. We're just learning how to play God, after all. What's more interesting is how close the cloned animals resemble their hosts.
Hwang tells his clients that they're not getting their old dog back, which is to be expected. Memories are not stored in DNA, and we have no way of transferring this information from one living creature to another (yet). Clients are also told that the animal "will not be 100% the same – the spots on a dalmatian clone will be different, for example". I find this to be rather interesting because, unless I'm mistaken about how DNA works, a clone should be indistinguishable from the original. The ages of the creatures will be different, but the organisms themselves should be darn near exact. So how can the spots of a Dalmatian be different? Going further, Hwang says his team "also can't guarantee they will have the same temperament as the original, but our clients do report lots of similarities".
My Miniature Dachshund, Nozomi, never met any of my previous dogs and she's not even the same breed, but she does share a lot of characteristics with those older and larger animals. How can people be sure they're getting actual clones of their pets at all?
I can't prove what I'm about to say, but I would bet money that this lab in South Korea is telling another lie.
Cloning has a very low success rate. Five years ago some of the best laboratories around the world were able to achieve a 5% success rate. Although the science has progressed quite a bit since then, it's ridiculously expensive to produce a viable clone. For $100,000 USD, it would be much simpler to scour pet shops around the globe for an animal that looks like the previous dog and have it sent to the client. Heck, for $100,000 USD, I could do this once every two years and still earn more money than I currently do! What an ingenious scam!
I've said before that cloning a member of the family is a selfish way to disrespect that person3. Should these cloned animals eventually be found to be naturally created, then it will serve the clients right for spitting in the face of their beloved pet. I'll be keeping my eye on their future project, though, as they've signed a deal with Russian scientists to clone a wooly mammoth. If this can be done successfully, then I will edit this post to say that Hwang and his laboratory is probably not lying about their abilities. Until then, I'll stick with my gut feeling.