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Dolly’s sister sheep clones reveal new insights and options

Dolly the Sheep was as cloned from a single cell from a sheep’s udder and made in a test tube in Scotland back in 1996. Oh, there was a righteous worldwide uproar at the time. There were lots of people afraid a cloned animal would turn out to be some sort of a monster, or that some mad scientist somewhere would soon be cloning soul-less humans.

From those, um, lively discussions, came a slew of new ethics rules and regulations scattered about in several countries. The United Nations banned any kind of human cloning in 2005. Things died down after that, and after Dolly died in 2003, people began to forget about her and cloning in general.

However, Dolly’s story didn’t end with her death. She lives on in her heirs.

Hello Dolly
Perhaps we should start at the beginning. Scientists said it took nearly 300 tries to copy the genetics of a sheep and produce the clone, Dolly. That was back before we have all the sophisticated genetic tools we have today. Back then, scientists used tools commonly used by in vitro fertilization clinics to create “a normal, healthy genetic marvel” – a perfect clone.

Here’s a short ABC News story to bring you up-to-date or refresh your memory on how Dolly came to be.

Dolly died from a progressive lung disease. The cause of that illness, be it something caught from other sheep Dolly lived with or something springing from her “already old cells,” has never been determined. Nonetheless, she was put down to stop her suffering from an incurable disease.

Surviving her were her four lambs, conceived and birthed in the normal way. Yes, it turns out, clones can mate and have kids, uh, lambs. Consider the sterile clone myth busted forever.

Cell sisters, the clones must go on
But there were also additional survivors: four clones made from the same cell line as Dolly’s. Yes, four sister clones named Daisy, Diana, Debbie and Denise. They are elderly now, in sheep years, and doing just fine. Perhaps that is partly due to their largely escaping the public spotlight and the strains of controversy. Well, at least until now.

A study was published this month in Nature Communications on how the four sister clones have fared to date. It turns out that they – and nine other cloned sheep unrelated to Dolly’s line – have all aged normally and are healthy.

“They are not monsters,” said Pasqualino Loi, a scientist who studies cloning at the University of Terama in Italy and was not involved in the research, according to an article in the NY Times.

Indeed, they don’t look or act like monsters. Here they are in a video explaining why it matters in the bigger scheme of things that they are aging normally and are healthy. Spoiler: they prove that cloned sheep are, or at least can be, every bit as normal as naturally born sheep.

Return of the Clones
The results of this study point to two things. First, it’s seemingly safe to clone animals which may be useful in reproducing prize animals on farms and nearly extinct animals in zoos and on nature preserves.

Secondly, that cloning human organs-- not whole people per se, just specific organs -- may be a realistic answer to curing some human diseases. If cloned organs also age normally and remain healthy, this is potentially an option for a wide range of ravaging diseases from cirrhosis of the liver to lung cancer and heart failure, and more. An added advantage to this technique is that cloned organs are identical to the patient’s existing organs and therefore organ rejection isn’t a risk and thus patients can skip the slew of harmful anti-rejection drug regimens too.

But that potential option will likely bring back the Clone Wars wherein one side of the public argues for cures while the other argues against “playing God.” We’ll have to wait and see how that plays out in various countries around the globe.

The moral of this post is that livestock genetics is improving the human condition in many ways and stands to improve it even more as new techniques come to be, are tested, and then adopted.

Cloning may or may not become a mainstream farming undertaking. It may or may not be used to cure very sick, often dying people. Nonetheless, it is a genetic breakthrough, like so many others, that at least gives us new options to consider.

Dolly’s sister sheep clones reveal new insights and options

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