This time, I’m taking a look at cloning, which is related to genetic engineering but has different uses, which – for now – are limited to other animals and plants, but could one day be used in relation to humans.

The Science of Cloning

Cloning is the process by which you create a genetic copy of an organism.

It happens naturally. Identical twins, for example, are caused by a division in the earliest stages of embryo development, which results in two identical foetuses developing in the same womb. It also happens in some species of plants as a form of reproduction – strawberries, for example – where the main plant sends off a stolon (aka. runner) producing identical plants along the way. It’s why you can sometimes cut off a stem and grow a new plant from it.

Artificial cloning of animals (and potentially, humans) is a bit more complicated, but the principle is fundamentally the same.

All genetic information for an organism is contained in the cell nucleus. First, you remove the nucleus of an unfertilised egg, replacing it with the nucleus of a matured adult cell (like a skin cell) – called nuclear transfer. Cell division is then kick-started (usually via electricity), and the embryo develops to term in a surrogate.

The resulting offspring will be a genetic copy of whom/whatever donated the matured cell. This is how Dolly the Sheep was created in 1996 at Edinburgh University – the first cloned mammal. They proved she was a clone because Dolly was a white-faced sheep, but carried in a black-faced surrogate from a black-faced egg.

What about cloning humans?

The technology to clone a human through to adulthood isn’t there yet and unlikely to be for several decades.

Cloning can be dangerous to the clone. It’s believed cloned cells age faster than normal cells – though recent Japanese research on cloned mice produced mice that live normal life spans. Clones are also susceptible to certain diseases and conditions caused by gene problems.

I suppose you could compare it to a print of a original oil painting looking identical but containing imperfections below the surface.

Cloning is also relatively inefficient as a process, with the success rate being as little as 3%. You can get away with doing this in a plant or other animals. In humans though it would be considered irresponsible and unethical. Double standards? It certainly would be seen to be by animal rights campaigners.

Human embryos have been cloned, usually to provide a source of embryonic stem cells. However, a mature cloned human would cross so many ethical lines it’s probably not worth the risk.

It’s hard to think of practical uses for a cloned adult human that aren’t nefarious or border on science fiction – espionage, playing tricks on people and using clones of genetically engineered humans to perform certain tasks in society.

Clones would be no different, really, to identical twins. A clone would still have parents as it would still be made up of genetic material from a male and a female.

A clone would probably also count as offspring as it would develop from embryo through to child the same way as a non-clone, despite being identical to the nucleus donor. Whoever carries the cloned egg to term would, I suppose, be no different to a surrogate mother.

If all that were done entirely in a laboratory though, and a cloned human is seen as “property” rather than a separate human being, then you’re looking at opening a door to slavery. A clone, despite being a copy, wouldn’t be the same person, and would develop based on their own experiences in life. From a psychology perspective, cloning would be the ultimate way to decide the nature v nurture debate, but that would cross ethical boundaries.

Many of the arguments against cloning, especially in relation to embryos, overlap with those for abortion, use of stem cells and genetic engineering.

There are also specific theological consideration for the religious, such as the question of whether a clone would have a soul? Or, in relation to eastern religions, whether clones would be subject to reincarnation or karmic laws?

There are, however, potential uses for cloning – even human cloning – that could be seen as beneficial.

Current and potential uses

Scientific research – Cloning is already a powerful tool in genetics research. This is usually restricted to cloning tissues or smaller animals in order to carry out experiments, such as helping to determine how stem cells develop into tissues and organs.

Therapeutic cloning – This is perhaps the best example of a potential practical medical application for cloning. Instead of developing a clone through to term in a surrogate mother, a cloned embryo could be used to supply embryonic stem cells which are compatible with a patient. As mentioned in Part IV, embryonic stem cells are particularly powerful as they have the ability to turn into any tissue of the body, meaning compatible replacements for damaged organs and tissues without relying on transplants or artificial organs.

A more advanced form of artificial selection – Cloning would probably be safer than genetic modification, as the clone would have the same impact on the environment as the original. You can also clone a genetically modified animal with a desired trait – high milk yielding cows, for example. The negative from this would be a reduction in both biodiversity and the gene pool amongst a herd. So “useful genes” – i.e. genes that provide resistance to certain diseases – might be lost if herds of animals are produced from a half dozen clones.

Only last week, the BBC reported on a “cloning factory” in China which produces pigs for genetic engineering and research. This sort of cloning on an industrial scale would’ve likely caused outrage in the West, but China has very different attitudes to the embryo and its value.

Lab-produced meat – It’s still decades away as a technology, but there’s also the prospect of producing meat products that involve no slaughter of animals at all, other than collecting the initial cells and growing them in culture. The first lab-grown beefburger, developed by Maastricht University, was eaten in London last August. Cloned meat from slaughtered animals, as well as products from cloned animals is already, apparently, in the food chain. There’s a growing row over whether it needs special licensing or labelling.

Commercial cloning of pets & working animals – This is perhaps one of the more obvious ones, where a loved family pet (dog, cat, rabbit etc.) or an award-winning pedigree is cloned to ensure their physical characteristics aren’t lost, or to provide some continuity to lessen the impact of a death of a pet or working animal (like police dogs). A service has been launched in the UK, though it currently costs £63,000! As the technology improves, the costs might come down. It also raises questions about whether shelter dogs, for example, which need a home will be overlooked for clones down the line.

Reintroducing extinct species? – I’m veering into science fiction here. Perhaps most famously portrayed in Jurassic Park, it’s scientifically invalid for now. I suppose it would be theoretically possible to resurrect extinct species, but you would have to be there to witness its extinction and have a viable way to enable a surrogate to carry to term. So resurrecting dinosaurs from fossilised amber is, for now, impossible. The Pyrenean ibex – which went extinct in 2000 – is an example of an extinct species which scientists are actively trying to resurrect through cloning. So far, one clone has been produced, but it died shortly afterwards.

Public Policy & Cloning

Many things here are outlawed. Article 3 of the The European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights prohibits “reproductive cloning” of humans – that’s cloning a human who would go on to adulthood. All other forms of cloning (like therapeutic, agricultural and research cloning) are seemingly fair game, though the results of that are still controversial and procedures sometimes restricted.

Similar to their anti-genetic modification stance (Part VI), the EU also takes a strong stance against cloning in agriculture, with the European Commission recently proposing a ban on cloning animals for food. However, the EU doesn’t have many restrictions on the produce of cloned animals (cheeses, milk, meat etc.) which can be sold without labelling.

Like their opposition to GMOs, the opposition to cloned meat could be seen as an act of protectionism from cheap imports, not one of public safety. It’s hard to think of any safety risks from cloned meat or plants seeing as they’re identical to non-cloned versions.

At a UK level, laws relating to embryology and fertility were updated by the passing of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008, which allows – subject to regulation – the cloning of human embryos and also the creation of cloned human-animal hybrids for research purposes. Therapeutic cloning is also currently legal in the UK.

If we go by the Scotland Act 1998; embryology, surrogacy and human genetics are reserved matters to the UK, so Wales would take responsibility for them only following independence or if the powers were devolved in future.

In terms of the current prevailing political consensus in Wales, the Assembly’s research service paper on food security (pdf) from June 2013 includes cloning as something that could affect the values of consumers. The issue of animal cloning for food was also flagged up to the Assembly’s Health & Social Care Committee as part of the European Commission’s forward work programme for 2013 (pdf p36).

As far as I can tell there’s no official Welsh Government or Welsh party policy on cloning – simply because it’s not a devolved matter, I presume. However, judging by the general consensus in the Assembly and parties against genetic modification and genetic engineering, there’s likely to be opposition to cloning in Wales too.

As I said in relation to GMOs, I personally believe opposition for opposition’s sake would be wrong, and any opposition should be based on science not the “ick factor“.

You’re more likely to hear cloning mentioned in the Assembly in relation to town centres.

What could an independent Wales do?

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act is pretty much spot on. Subsequently, post-independence or devolution of the powers, I don’t see any need to vary wildly from it, apart from issues relating to things like abortion (Part I), for instance, which could be revisited.

There are other, more specific, policy stances, like:

 

  • Continuing to support a ban on reproductive cloning of humans in the EU, and globally, due to question marks about the rights and status of a cloned individual (parentage, identity etc.).
  • Artificial human cloning for non-medical or research means should be completely outlawed, punishable by stiff prison sentences. Continue a strong licensing regime for all other “legal” types of cloning.
  • Allow the sale of cloned meat and food products (subject to EU regulations and scientific consensus on safety). Whether it should be labelled or not is another debate, but I don’t see the need for a label.
  • It might also be worthwhile maintaining a genetic database of near-extinct species of animal and plant in Wales, so that they could – theoretically – be reintroduced once the technology’s there.

Some issues here could be dealt with purely at a Welsh level, some would have to be dealt with at an international level – especially if an independent Wales were a member of the EU. Most of it would probably come down to closely monitoring and regulating cloning activities at Welsh universities – again, a continuation of obligations in the Embryology Act.