Ryan Dowell, MJLST Staffer
In the two decades since Dolly, a comically named sheep, animal cloning has remained little more than fiction to the average person. Behind the scenes, however, the field has progressed tremendously. Success rates today are estimated to be 70% or higher, compared to less than half a percent when cloning Dolly and her siblings. As the technique has been perfected, the obvious result has occurred: animal cloning has become a nascent industry.
Cloning has long been present in human society, in a form that many people may not recognize: plants. From simple home-garden cutting & replanting to industrial-scale cultivation from tissue samples; these techniques produce genetically identical individuals (i.e. clones) used as floral cultivars, tree planting, and especially foods. A large number of plants grown for human consumption are clones—which means that you, dear reader, have probably eaten a clone. Plant cloning has not encountered the same scrutiny as that with animals, perhaps due to its natural occurrence or millennia-long history of human use.
Dolly was merely the proverbial ‘dipping our toe into’ animal cloning. True to the writings of Michael Crichton (or the movies, if one so prefers), it didn’t take long for Jurassic Park-esque attempts to clone endangered and extinct animals. Cloning was not limited to such an idealistic use—a market emerged. Grieving pet owners could, at significant cost, get clones of their beloved pets. Despite the cost (still a five-digit price tag), a market for such services has continued to develop. Further demonstrating the human capacity for expensive animal-keeping hobbies, equine cloning has emerged as a means to “insure that prized horse and its unique qualities.” If one were to stop here, cloning seems to be a niche market for the wealthy.
The emerging cloning industry has not stopped at pets and exotic creatures. With the science complete and industrial production moving forward, livestock cloning is set to erupt in the coming years. A ‘cloning factory’ is opening in China. This factory is intended to produce not only pets and horses, but also prime beef cattle and drug-sniffing dogs. Following the same reasoning underlying farming’s predilection for plant clones, elimination of genetic variations could significantly improve farming techniques—maximizing yield, minimizing labor and resource inputs, matching strains to specific regions, and so on. In a world with mounting concern over the meat sustainability, improvements to production are key and cloning provides the means to significantly advance the field.
In many emerging fields, law and regulation react to the development and often impede progress. Fortunately, the issue of animal cloning has already been addressed—the FDA regulates the field & was essentially prescient. In 2008, the FDA released a guidance stating “meat and milk from cow, pig, and goat clones and the offspring of any animal clones are as safe as food we eat every day.” The FDA examined cloning (also known as somatic cell nuclear transfer or SCNT), under the umbrella of assisted reproductive technologies (ART), which have long been utilized by farmers. The analysis noted that these animals would have essentially identical genetics to the source, unless reprogramming occurred (which can be done with other ARTs); that risk associated with the cloned animals is no different than the source organism. It was noted that cloned offspring have higher risk of adverse health issues early in life compared to offspring from other ARTs. However, none of these issues are unique to clones and other than early-life issues, clones are as healthy as non-clones. Livestock cloning has passed FDA scrutiny and manufacturing infrastructure is in place; it is poised to develop rapidly.
Public opinions may prove to be the final hurdle for livestock cloning. If one tells a fruit-eater that he or she is eating a clone (or as a botanist might put it the ovary of a clone), the fruit-eater will likely be unaware of this fact and less than pleased that his or her enjoyment of that fruit has been disrupted by the interjection. Alternatively, a substantial portion of the population believes GMOs are not safe for them to consume, which is untrue (see here, here, here, here, and here). A similar scenario to either of these might present itself here: (1) everyone blissfully consumes food without the need for nitty-gritty detail of its origin (since there is no discernable or material difference), or (2) misinformation is allowed to spread and ‘poison the well.’ The deciding factor will likely be education; the current state of affairs presents the opportunity to preemptively educate the public on the FDA’s findings and regulations.
Livestock cloning is poised to expand rapidly in the future and now we face a crucial time in its acceptance: a public educated on the issue will be equipped to fairly determine whether such livestock should be consumed, without a torrent of pseudo-science obscuring the decision. The FDA has examined clones and found them to be nearly identical to non-clones (pun very much intended) in regards to human consumption.