I’m sure I just saw myself!

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away an evil Empire fought a war with a clone army [Star Wars]. They took the best soldiers they could find and made clone after clone of them. Meanwhile on a not too distant “Island” replicas of yourself have been created for the single purpose of providing you with donor organs if you were to ever fall ill in an attempt to beat the normal progression of life [The Island]. Maybe when you walk down the street later today you’ll suddenly see your doppelgänger die in front of you, later discovering there are multiple clones of you of different nationalities spread all around the world, created by a biotechnology company, the Dyad Institute [Orphan Black] interested in promoting eugenics – to improve the genetic quality of us humans. If you want to get away from all that you can always go on holiday to the latest theme park, to walk alongside long extinct dinosaurs [Jurassic Park].

These are just some of the possible present and futures that science fiction authors have created with cloning. There are many, many more, and a quick internet search reveals multiple lists of books and films revolving around the sole theme of cloning. Being a geneticist by ‘trade’ I’ve got a reasonable grasp of the current facts. Nature has been cloning itself for millions of years and as a scientist and as a gardener I’ve actually leveraged this phenomena a great deal myself. If any of you are gardeners, or use active live yeast in baking or even grow mushrooms then so have you. The first thing to understand is that there are different kinds of cloning.

 Unicellular organisms

Bacteria, yeast and single cell algae all have the ability to clone themselves, in fact it is what they do most of the time. Each single bacteria or alga is a unique organism in its own right, just like you and me, and everyday it divides , clones itself, to make a perfect copy. This happens in our bodies as well, our skin cells are constantly making copies of themselves to replenish the dead skin cells we shed. We don’t think of this as cloning, perhaps because its not happening at the whole organism level. I worked for several years on alga and plants. The alga I worked with normally live in the soil, they are probably in your back garden right now (known as Chlamydomonas species).

Chlamydomonas Reinhardtii
Alga Chlamydomonas as seen under the microscope – Copyright Steve Banks 2017

They have 2 ‘tails’ called flagella that they use to swim around and most of the time they reproduce by making an exact clones of themselves. I leveraged this so that I could take a few cells, give them optimal conditions to grow and in a few days have millions of copies of the starting cells.

This kind of cloning is know as asexual reproduction. Only when times get difficult do they mate with others to exchange genetic information and get some diversity to help them survive better next time.

Fly agaric Mushroom
Fly agaric mushroom – Copyright Steve Banks 2017

Larger fungi – mushroom also clone themselves, inter case into spores, perfect copies released into the air to colonise  other places.

Plants have known how to clone for a long time

A lot of plants can also reproduce asexually by a varied set of mechanisms. How many of you reading this have taken a cutting from a plant that you really liked but couldn’t buy for whatever reason, popped it in some rooting media and hey presto you have a copy of that plant – a clone. Strawberries and raspberry’s spread their roots out and from these, new identical plants grow. More fascinating is the ornamental plant Bryophyllum (also called Kalanchoë). This unusual plant divides the cells at the edge of it’s leaves to form tiny plantlets that fall off and grow into new clones of the original plant.

Bryophyllum plantlets By Photographer: CrazyD, 26 October 2005 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Now I know you are thinking the plant that you clone doesn’t look exactly like the one it is taken from and that’s because of a phenomena called nurture and the effects of the environment, but they ARE genetically identical, which defines a clone.

Is it Really That Easy

I could go on, there are so many instances of this that you don’t realise it happening, but what I hope this goes to show is that cloning happens in nature all the time, so its fairly logical to assume that it can happen in humans and animals just like science fiction authors envisage. And yes experiments have shown it is possible, but here it gets a little bit more complicated, mainly because to clone an adult is difficult. We do have clones though, identical twins, but in this case cloning happens at the early embryonic stage, when we are still just a small collection of cells that don’t resemble what we will become. In fact because it’s more complicated I’m going to leave this topic here just for now, In the next day or two I’ll clone the topic into the next blog post and continue where I left off, I promise it wont be exactly the same, that’s the difference with trying to clone us humans.

Part 2 on Cloning can be found here.


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