The world of biology was relatively quiet and untainted, whereas other natural sciences such as physics and chemistry had suffered from some bad reputations. Nuclear physics is now associated with the tragedies of Chernobyl and Fukushima and chemistry has been associated with pesticides, dangerous drugs and horrible toxins. But the view on biology changed in 1996 when Dolly the Sheep was born, the first official clone of a mammal.
Suddenly the press went haywire, drawing scenarios of the doom of humanity. The scientists from Scotland were suddenly accused that they had been interfering with the essentials of life and created a monster. Was this the beginning of Frankenstein come true? Certainly not. The streets are still safe and there is no army of human clones trying to invade us as so beautifully demonstrated in Star Wars. But what is the truth about the myth of cloning? How does it affect our everyday lives and what are the biologists cooking next in their laboratories?
Dolly is dead now. She died from lung cancer in 2003 after enjoying only half the life span of a normal sheep of that breed. Since Dolly, many mammals have been cloned, including bulls and horses and none of those has hit the news as vigorously – or maybe the name Bull 86 just did not quite cut it. Why do we clone animals?
First of all, it is important to understand what is cloning. Cloning is a natural phenomenon, just as is nuclear energy. Many organisms in nature reproduce asexually, for example bacteria, some plants and some insects. By definition, two clones are organisms with exactly the same genetic make-up. If a bacteria divides for example, two clones are formed. There are approximately 40 million bacteria in one gram of soil, often from the same clone, and thus two grams of soil has potentially got more clones than Britain has people.
Cloning is a technique used routinely in laboratories and has been since the dawn of molecular biology. It is a tool absolutely necessary to study the fundamentals of life and study mechanisms in cells that ultimately help us understand many diseases. So, cloning seems to be a good word. But why do we need to clone mammals or potentially even humans, which is still illegal.
Interestingly, Dolly was not even a real clone. There are two pools of DNA in a mammalian cells, one the nucleus which is passed on from the father and the mother, and one in the mitochondria, the “power plants” of a cell, which is only passed on from the mother. The mitochondria were not replaced and thus Dolly was strictly speaking not a clone – neither is any of the other mammals that have been cloned since.
Many plants that we cultivate and finally eat are clones. With the technology available we can also use cloning to genetically modify plants in order to increase crops, yield and even taste. Again there is the question as to whether this is necessary.
Despite heated debates and many laws about stem cells, genetically modified food and cloning, once Pandora’s box is open, it usually doesn’t get closed again. Cloning is good and has helped our understanding of the mechanisms of the cell and helped guide the development of many drugs which help millions of people. The question is not as to whether one should use cloning, but rather what is the scientist’s conscience using such techniques. We live in a society with strict moral codes laid upon us, some of them maybe debatable. As society evolves, the moral code also changes. To me, a scientist conducting experiments is responsible for his/her actions. Politics is responsible for laws that try to lead the conscience of people. It surely is our responsibility to understand the needs of society as a whole and help guide scientists to make good decisions and use the knowledge they generate wisely.