Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Give That Clone a Bone

Back in 1998 John Sperling decided to clone his dog. Sperling was, at the time, the 79-year old founder of something call the "University of Phoenix," which can best be described as a very-for-profit continuing education system married to a huge internet-based correspondence school.

The University of Phoenix is now the largest private university in the United States, with more than 140,000 students attending classes at 41 campuses, and it is supported by over $1.6 billion in U.S. Government sanctioned-student loans. Sterling became a billionaire in less than 15 years by simply marrying the old correspondence-school idea to the internet.

All of this is by way of introduction to John Sperling's dog cloning project, which is one of the ways Mr. Sperling is spending his considerable fortune.

It seems Mr. Sperling used to have a cross-bred border collie by the name of Missy. Sperling got the idea it might be possible to clone Missy whom, he decided, was a very special genetic combination.

And why not clone a dog? Sperling's brain storm occurred just two years after Scottish scientists had cloned Dolly the Sheep. How hard could a dog be?

And so John Sperling put up millions of dollars to create the "Genetic Savings and Clone" company with the "Missyplicity Project" at its heart.

Missy died at age 15, in 2002, before efforts to clone her had succeeded, but her tissue has been well-preserved and she will, no doubt, be cloned within a few years.

Meanwhile, the "Genetic Savings and Clone" company is moving along apace. The company was the first in the world to clone a cat, creating a kitten called CC (Copy Cat), and in February of 2004, the company launched the world's first commercial cat cloning service.

On the canine front, the company is offering genetic banking of dog tissue in anticipation of the commercial viability of a stable and reliable canine cloning procedure. For $900 to $1,400 per pooch, the Genetic Savings and Clone company will collect and store biopsy samples of your beloved dog in anticipation of that Great Day when dead dogs will rise out of the ground and stand at the right hand of Jesus ... or at least until you are willing to have it cloned.

In 2005, the first dog was supposedly cloned in Korea (an Afghan of all things). Though genetic testing supposedly confirms the validity of this clone, the scientist doing the research has faked other research data and some doubts remain.

What is not in doubt is that cloning a dog is harder than cloning a cat and a reliable and stable procedure and protocol have yet to be worked out.

But it is clearly only a matter of time.

In 1998 the Ishikawa Prefectural Livestock Research Center produced Noto and Kaga, the first cows cloned from adult cells, and the next year the University of Hawaii produced the first male clone -- a mouse. In 2000, Chinese researchers produced the first cloned goat, and the next year Advanced Cell Technologies cloned "Noah," a rare gaur (a type of wild cow). In 2002, researchers at Trans Ova Genetics and Advanced Cell Technologies produced the first banteng (another ungulate), born to a surrogate domestic cow, with the genetic material taken from a donor that had died 23 years earlier and whose cells has been preserved in the "Frozen Zoo" at the San Diego Zoo's Center for the Reproduction of Endangered Species.

In 2003, Italy produced the first cloned horse, and that same year the University of Idaho produced a pair of cloned mules, while the University of Texas cloned a whitetail deer. Everyone was getting into the act!

In 2005, researchers at the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species in New Orleans (not related to the National Audubon Society) naturally breed unrelated African wildcat clones, resulting in the birth of African wildcat kittens -- the first time unrelated clones of a wild species had produced offspring.

What's next?

Well, another dog or two, for sure. A human being or two is a pretty safe bet, as are gorillas and chimpanzees for medical research. Millions of genetic mice and other small test animals are an eventual certainty. A cloned mammoth (from frozen cells gleaned from long-frozen Siberian carcasses) is not beyond imagination.

But what of cloned dogs? Let's assume that the health issues associated with cloning are worked out (about a quarter of all animals born through cloning have some kind of cloning-related health problem). Who is going to buy these cloned pups?

It may not be the market you think. The racing horse industry has already banned clones, and I think it's safe to say the Kennel Club will follow suit.

Hunting dogs may be a very real canine cloning market. Who wants the risk of a working terrier that is too big, or a pointer with no interest in birds? For the lurcher man, a baying dog is a nightmare, while for the houndsman a dead-mute dog is a serious nuisance. Everyone wants a dog with gameness, tractability, brains and a nose. If you've hunted with a "one-in-a-million" dog, you may want to pass that dog on to your kids 50 years from now.

On the pet side of the equation, there will always be a demand for "guaranteed-healthy" dogs that are going to be"just so" in terms of size, coloring and temperament.

Look for "clone shops" to advertise terriers and beagles that do not bark and border collies that are entirely apathetic. After all, it is the prey-drive of these animals that make them "problem pets" for so many urban and suburban owners. A defective border collie is just what some people want.

That said, I suspect that most people just want a dog, and are not going to spring for a test tube pup-ciscle hatched out in a lab. In fact, a cultural aversion to such fetish perfectionism may develop.

It is a fac, however, that technology and biology tend to creep -- and sometimes gallop -- on to the human stage. It is entirely possible that, in just 50-years time, cloned dogs will be passed down from father to son (or daughter) and on to human clone.

Yes, yes, that is exactly what I am saying. Your cloned self (it's never too early to bank a little tissue) may one day hunt with your cloned dog (cryonic technicians are standing by) in genetically modified fields and forests.

The game may be a natural animal or perhaps a clone (what species would you like to hunt today, Sir?) or perhaps even a chimera with just enough exotic genes spliced into its double-helix that it provides an entirely different kind of hunting sport -- a faster flying duck, a larger whitetail with elk-like antlers, or a 10-pound European rabbit entirely immune to North American rabbit diseases.

I know I am supposed to be terribly concernd about all this, but I find it increasingly hard to get terrified. Having grown up in the shadow of The Bomb ("duck and cover little children") and news stories about chemicals in the air and water, mass extinctions, global warming, AIDS and avian flu pandemics, I no longer scare easily.

Besides, what are you going to do? If people want cloned dogs, they will get them, never mind that they reduce genetic variability.

You will have more success holding back the ocean with sand castles than you will trying to stop those seeking a quick profit or instant gratification.

In the end, you have to bet that Mother Nature and Father Time will work it all out. It's always a good bet they will bat last in this game. They always do.

No, this is not a real ad. But it might be
part of the real market for cloned pets.

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