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Cloning man's best friend
It was recently reported that within the last two years, at least three major for-profit efforts have been launched to offer pet owners the possibility to clone their pets, at the moment limited to dogs and cats. They represent one of the products of genetic and biotechnology research that have so far yielded cloned sheep, cattle and pigs, and promise genetically modified animals that can produce everything from pharmaceuticals in their milk to organs that could be used for human transplant.
But what does it say about a society that clones its pets? We are becoming increasingly invested in the quick and temporary -- we prefer prepared and packaged food and drinks whose remnants we discard and forget, and we increasingly rely on ephemeral and untethered modes of information such as wireless phones, e-mail and the Internet. So, for many of us, a little grounding and greater sense of connectedness may be in order, and what better way to stay grounded than a pet that will always be there -- not just when you come home from work for the next 15 years, but forever? And not a breed of Sony's latest gizmo, the robotic dog, but an immortal version of Fido or Fluffy.
So why not clone our animals? There are a few issues to address -- their answers will also help us think about the value of such technologies for humans. Are we really offering the possibility to immortalize pets, or just making copies that look very much like each other? Is pet cloning really what we want from the genetic revolution? And do decisions about cloning pets carry over to how we think about cloning people?
Perpetual pet perfection?
There is no reason to believe that clones of pets will be the reincarnated version of the original, any more than it would be so in cloned humans. We can see this by looking at identical twins -- nature's clones. The may look very much alike, and even act in very similar ways as each other, but nobody would say they are the same people. Cloning offers the chance to make identical twins that live serially instead of together -- effectively very similar-looking copies that may also have similar behaviors and personalities, but so do human and animal siblings. So cloning Rin Tin Tin will give us Rin Tin Tin II, rather than Rin Tin Tin again.
Is this what we want from the genetic revolution?
It may seem odd that after billions of dollars invested in genetics and biotechnology, that one of the first applications available to consumers would be the cloning of pets. But in fact it makes perfect sense. Pet cloning will perform a valuable role as a dress rehearsal for what we can expect if we ever get to human cloning.
Finding human applications from animal research
In a small twist on a familiar argument, we might conclude that efforts at pet cloning will also bear fruit for human health. The usual justification for biomedical research on animals includes the possibility that whatever is learned in the process of pursuing human health can also be applied to animal health. Pet cloning offers just the opposite, since whatever is learned from it will have direct application for humans. What are cloning's technical barriers, safety risks, and barriers to success? And it will offer the chance to test our theories about how similar or different clones will be from the original version.
It isn't clear why we need to immortalize our pets, but if there is demand then entrepreneurs will do their best to meet it. People provide all sorts of costly things for their pets -- from fancy foods, expensive grooming and high tech medical care to funerals and cemetery plots. So while pet cloning may not be the most important application for all the scientific know-how that it represents, it will teach us some valuable scientific lessons and change the way we think of our non-human companions. In the year 2010 it may make perfect sense to ask, "How much is that copy of Lassie in the window?"
"Ethics Matters" Archive
where you'll find other columns from Jeffrey Kahn
on a wide range of bioethics topics.
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