March of the Clones

Recently scientists associated with the "Lazarus Project" out of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, successfully cloned an extinct variety of frog (Rheobatrachus silus a.k.a. Gastric Brooding Frog), bringing the species back to life, albeit only in embryo form. Although this seems like we'll be getting a Jurassic Park in a few years, the Lazarus Project has already said they have no intention of bringing dinosaurs back (on an NPR broadcast, I"ll link once it's up on the web), as the project's goal is to restore species that have gone extinct due to human activity.

Reading about Rheobatrachus silus, which is worth the read—it's a bizarre animal—got me wondering what the state of cloning is today. We might remember Dolly, the cloned sheep from the 1990's that made headlines, and who holds the title of the first mammal cloned from an adult cell (it was a mammary gland cell, hence the name "Dolly" —after Dolly Parton). I remember hearing news at the time that stated cloning Dolly was an arduous and expensive process, so I was curious about what advances have been made in the nearly two decades since.

According to this Wikipedia entry, there have been at least 22 cloned animals since Dolly including species as large as a horse and as small as a fruit fly. Apparently, the process has gotten easier, and it seems we're figuring out how to do better all the time.

The funny thing about cloning, is that people (at least here in the USA) tend to be very nervous about it. I'm sad to say this is probably the fault of my favorite genre—science fiction—filling everyone's head with the notion that "cloning" means making a complete copy of someone right down to their thoughts and past experiences and done all within a few minutes, hours, or days.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia
Nothing could be further from the truth. Cloning takes just as long to make an adult thing (be it animal, plant, etc) as natural reproduction. If someone were to take your DNA and clone a whole you, it would take however many years to reach your age of maturity as you did. Further, it would have none of your knowledge or skills since it would be growing up under different circumstances, taught by different people, in a different world than you did (temporally speaking)—though your clone may have your same liking for certain foods, etc. Other than being a mode of reproduction, there really is no point in cloning a whole person—and if that doesn't set your mind at ease, there is a chance you already know one since identical twins are naturally occurring clones. 

There's far more use in cloning individual organs or other body parts than whole people. In fact, this research is going on right now, though it is slow for people due to the restrictive laws concerning using human stem cells and DNA in experiments.  There has already been work done in this area on animals, however. Perhaps one day it will be possible to eliminate the need for organ donor and replace a failing heart or liver with a new one which is every bit as "you" as the rest of you.

Time will tell.


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