In 1997 Ian Wilmut, an embryologist, and colleagues at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh, produced the first clone of an adult mammal, Dolly the Sheep. This important medical breakthrough has many important implications, although the initial response has been interest in and fear of the possibility of cloning a human being.
Cloning, from the Greek work klon, meaning “twig,” involves the production of genetically identical animals by a process of nuclear transfer. The chromosomes from an unfertilized egg are removed and replaced with a nucleus from a donor cell. The nucleus determines almost all the characteristics of the offspring, so that a clone resembles its “parent,” the animal from which the donor cell came, rather than the animal contributing the egg.
The possibility of cloning humans immediately became a controversy after the birth of Dolly. Unlike the situation in the film Multiplicity, however, cloning will not produce an exact replica of the adult. Instead the clone is born and develops through the normal life stages of a human. For this reason, the personality of a human clone may differ considerably from its “parent.” Although many scientists and other commentators have called for a ban on the cloning of humans, it is possible that humans will be cloned at some point in the near future. The techniques are relatively simple, and any infertility clinic could convert itself quickly into a clinic for cloning humans.
A much more likely prospect than cloning humans is gene manipulation for the purpose of producing “designer children.” Research is already under way to find genes responsible for particular diseases. It will be difficult to draw the line between eliminating life-threatening or debilitating diseases and using gene manipulation to produce superior intelligence or desired physical characteristics in children. However, as the film Gattaca demonstrates, gene enhancement may still be offset by drive and determination. Cloning can be used for many purposes. It can be used to change the function of existing genes. Further research in this area may lead to cures for such diseases as Alzheimer’s and AIDS. Cloning may be used to produce undifferentiated (embryonic) cells for use in medical research. It may also be used to improve possibilities for xenotransplantation (use of nonhuman organs to replace defective human organs) by, for example, modifying pigs genetically to prevent rejection of an organ by human immune systems. These and other uses raise ethical as well as technical issues.
Suggestions for Term Papers
1. Work on cloning goes back to the 1960s. Investigate earlier efforts at cloning (see Suggested Sources) and write a report on your findings.
2. Write a paper on the work at the Roslin Institute that led to the birth of Dolly the Sheep.
3. Organize a debate on the ethics of cloning human beings or on the ethics of using cloning techniques for medical research and in agriculture.
4. Use newspapers and magazines to research advances in cloning since the birth of Dolly the Sheep.
5. There are indications that Dolly is aging more rapidly than she should. Investigate the possible drawbacks of cloning and write a report.
6. Interview people in your town or take a poll (scientific or unscientific) to determine public opinion about cloning.
In addition to the boldfaced items, look under the entries for “The Discovery of the Double Helical Structure of DNA, 1953” (#49), “First ‘Test-Tube’ Baby Born, 1978” (#79), “The Spread of AIDS in the 1980s” (#83), and “John Paul II’s First Twenty Years as Pope, 1978–1999” (#98). Search under National Bioethics Advisory Commission, Richard Seed, and Jeremy Rifkin.
Wilmut, Ian, Keith Campbell, and Colin Tudge. The Second Creation: Dolly and the Age of Biological Control. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, forthcoming. Dolly’s story as told by her creators.
Andrews, Lori B. The Clone Age: Adventures in the New World of Reproductive Genetics. New York: Henry Holt, 1999. Andrews, an attorney who specializes in reproductive technology, draws the line at cloning humans.
Crichton, Michael. The Lost World. New York: Random House, 1997. The sequel to Jurassic Park, but perhaps not so unlikely. Scientists are now hoping to clone a woolly mammoth from a perfectly preserved specimen found in Siberia recently.
Gattaca. Distributed by Columbia TriStar Home Video, 1998. A film version of what the future might be like if people were divided between those who were “gene-enhanced” and those who were not. The protagonist, who is not gene-enhanced, shows that drive and determination still count for a great deal.
Kolata, Gina. Clone: The Road to Dolly and the Path Ahead. New York: William Morrow, 1998. A highly readable account by a science reporter for the New York Times.
McGee, Glenn, ed. The Human Cloning Debate. Berkeley: Berkeley Hills Books, 1998. Includes a contribution by Wilmut.
Nussbaum, Martha, and Cass R. Sunstein, eds. Clones and Clones: Facts and Fantasies about Human Cloning. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998. A useful collection of articles.
Pence, Gregory E. Who’s Afraid of Human Cloning? Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998. A call for a more reasoned discussion of the possibilities of cloning.
———. Flesh of My Flesh: The Ethics of Cloning Humans: A Reader. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998. A very useful collection.
Rifkin, Jeremy. The Biotech Century: Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the World. New York: Putnam Publishing Group, 1998. A warning against the dangers of biotechnology by an influential futurist.
Silver, Lee M. Remaking Eden: How Genetic Engineering and Cloning Will Transform the American Family. New York: Avon, 1998. This edition contains an afterword. Silver, a molecular biologist at Princeton, believes that reproductive technology of all kinds will be made available for those who want it and are willing to pay.
World Wide Web
“Roslin Institute Online.” http://www.ri.bbsrc.ac.uk. Click on “Special Topic: Cloning” for a wealth of information.