Dolly the sheep, named after the singer Dolly Parton, when was the last time you heard of her? 20 years have passed since the sensational headlines of cloning a mammal successfully from a single adult body cell. It was a rare occasion where science captured the spotlight. Everyone wanted to know more about cloning and the public was smitten by Dolly.

Dolly’s ‘parent’ was a single cell from a mammary tissue of an adult ewe. She was the exact genetic copy of that sheep, a clone to be precise. In 1958, frogs were cloned from adult frogs using their skin cells. This was achieved by British biologist, John Gurdon. However, cloning of mammals wasn’t successful till 1996. The breakthrough paved way for improving cloning technology and stem cell research. We were all talking about the possibility of cloning humans being a reality in the future as we could now clone mammals. People were divided on that hot topic. Some wanted human cloning, others were against it. But what happened to clones after Dolly? We haven’t heard of cloning experiments or more successful cloning for years. Was anything going on in this field? Or was there no sensational news to be brought to the spotlight? 

Cloning after Dolly

Truth be told, thousands of animals have been cloned in about 2 dozen species. The practical applications of cloning are limited. That’s why there haven't been any sensational headlines regarding clones for a while.

The most recent and famous cloning experiment being Final Answer, an Angus bull that was cloned to produce high-quality cattle using his clone’s sperm.

Contrary to popular beliefs, the driving force behind cloning wasn’t to produce clones but to use cloning techniques to make genetic changes to mammals. The changes occur faster than traditional methods, which would take years otherwise.

What can you do with genetic changes?

Scientists have been able to make drastic genetic changes, especially with regard to animals.

They produced a strain of pigs that are incapable of getting infected by the contagious and deadly Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome Virus (PRRS). Every year, it costs the United States of America and Europe $644 million and 1.5 billion € respectively. That’s a lot of money saved, thanks to cloning.

Another example where cloning has been useful is eliminating the painful and horrendous process of dehorning cattle. Scientists found a workaround by introducing the polled (no horn) gene into cattle. They even managed to make certain types of cattle resistant to Mad Cow disease.

A couple of years ago, a group of researchers from the New York Stem Cell Foundation created a disease-specific cell line from a patient suffering Type 1 diabetes. They have been able to grow insulin-producing beta cells which match the donor, reducing the possibility of rejection. This means that researchers have been able to focus on reprogramming adult cells and convert them into functioning cells to combat diseases.

Why can't we clone humans or extinct/endangered species yet?

The cloning technique used to create Dolly can’t be used for primates. The chances of abnormalities increases when you try cloning. The fetuses tend to be bizarre at times, which results in peculiarities at birth. Large offspring syndrome, where the successor tends to 30% – 40% larger than normal, which makes the process of giving birth harder. Moreover, if any complications develop as a result of cloning, it can prove fatal. Another factor to be taken into consideration is the environment which will affect the growth of the clone. You may be able to exactly recreate another person, but the experiences they have will be different, which can alter the personality of the clone.

Theoretically, with cloning, you can bring back extinct/endangered species back to life. Also, the current cloning techniques require an intact nucleus of the cell, which isn’t possible with extinct species. There are other ways to bring back extinct species, by using the genes of their closest relative. For example, in passenger pigeons and band-tailed pigeons, 97% of the genes are the same. Only 3% is different and out of that, most of it is irrelevant. Only 20-100 mutations affect the genes, which makes them different.

Insights gained from cloning

The most valuable contribution of cloning is the scientific information and insights. These insights increase the understanding the factors of ageing, normal and abnormal development of the embryo, and much more. This helped in reducing birth defects, fighting cancer, improved ways to thwart infertility and reduce the negative consequences of ageing. Cloning’s biggest impact is in stem cell research. There are various elements which affect cloning, such as lifestyle, nutrition, diseases, and experiences can influence genes.

The future if large-scale cloning becomes a reality

Thousands of people list for organ donation and many die as they don’t receive one on time. If cloning of human organs becomes successful, countless lives can be saved. Cloning also allows parents to choose the traits they want for their babies. It’s still experimental, but it will be possible in the coming future. Fatal diseases can be rendered ineffective as cells from the human body can be modified to combat them.

There is much to be gained from cloning. True, there are ethical issues that need to faced at first as many people are against the idea of humans playing God. Genetic diversity will decrease, which is crucial for evolution and adaptation. Anyone who has watched The Island will say that it can also be abused by those in power. But if it is for the betterment of the world, don’t you think we should pursue it with everything we have? Imagine a world where everyone is healthy and they don’t have to worry about falling sick. Won’t that be a better future?

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