Mirror! Mirror!

Part 1 on Cloning can be read here.

Back to cloning, and now we’ve moved onto bigger species, including us the human race. Its “us” that the sci-fi authors often like to produce clones of.

So can we do this? Can we clone ourselves, well sort of. Embryos can be split at the early stages to produced clones, it’s how you get identical twins. In cloning this can be done intentionally, embryonic cells taken before they have decided which part of your body they will become and have the potential to start over if separated, make a second copy of you. You can even take just the DNA from one of these early embryonic cells, place this DNA back in an egg which has its DNA removed and potentially produce a successful clone. But to clone us has one problem, we aren’t embryos anymore, there’s no embryonic cells to use.

In the sci-fi stories the characters need to be able to clone from an adult cell and this is where it gets more difficult. DNA from one cell is all we need but it’s already programmed to be a specific type of cell. We need to be able to press the reset switch, reboot it back to that embryo stage. In practical terms It needs to be placed inside an egg that can reprogram the DNA to allow it to grow as an embryo.

The egg needs to come from the same species, it needs the correct machinery to get started, so we need human eggs for this to work. The eggs need to be sourced from somewhere, and this isn’t currently a realistic proposition in humans, the only eggs available are left over from infertility treatments but not in the quantity required and then there is the ethical aspect. There are also dangers to the process used in this infertility treatment so we couldn’t expect anyone to do this just to produce eggs for cloning.

There are experiments being undertaken at the moment to produce artificial eggs to hold rodent DNA – Japanese scientists have been successful with this. Once we’ve done all that the embryo still needs to grow successfully. The egg is given pulses of electric shocks which kickstarts the cell to reprogram and grow as an new embryo – now that’s where Frankenstein’s monster references probably come from.

The sheep is the winner

So can it really be done. Well, at least in animals yes! It happened a while ago, 1996 to be precise. Whilst I was working as a post doc scientist I occupied an office just down the corridor from Professor Ian Wilmut. Keith Campbell and Ian Wilmut were credited with the creation of Dolly the Sheep, perhaps the most famous cloned animal ever – though here in NZ Shrek comes a close second for completely different reasons. If you are ever in Edinburgh I encourage you to go and see Dolly at the National Museums Scotland.

Dolly The Sheep
Dolly the Sheep – At the National Museums Scotland

Dolly was the first clone made by somatic cell nuclear transfer, that is a clone of an animal that was generated using an adult cell (a somatic cell), these cells were from a sheep udder. Now this wasn’t the easiest feat to accomplish, it took the scientist 277 attempts to produce Dolly. What is remarkable is that Dolly then went on to live a normal life, she gave birth to many offspring who were all healthy. When she died initial reports said that it was because she was cloned, that the cloning had had an effect on her health, but in reality she just got sick the same way other sheep do as they age. Though there are still problems even today, some animals do indeed seem to get complications related to the fact they have been cloned, so the technique is not 100% fool proof.

So what about humans, can I get lots of mini me’s?

In human cell using human somatic cells and eggs none have developed passed a small number of cells, the human eggs seem less capable of reprogramming the somatic cell’s DNA. So far most success has come in producing stem cell clones. Stem cells can go on to form the different cells in our body.

Nature and Nurture

You also have to factor in the effects of nurture and the environment, these outside influences can affect what genes are switched on and off and contribute to how we develop, its not just our DNA, in fact a recent study showed its a nearly 50/50 splits between nature and nurture. If you clone from an adult cell it is unlikely your clone will grow and develop in exactly the same way you did. So although genetically identical, theres a good chance the clone wont look the same, act the same or have the same moral compasses. This is the basis for the difference in clones in Orphan Black, they had different surrogate mothers, growing up in completely separate families in separate parts of the world.

Star Wars Attack of Clones – Scene from Film of Clone Troopers

Star Wars in contrast brought up all the clone troopers in the same secret base, they would essential have had the same nurture and environment so there is a good chance that they would indeed all have ended up looking and behaving the same.

The Future

The upshot is at some point we will most likely be able to make clones of ourselves but most scientists agree that the technology will not develop enough in the foreseeable future for this to happen. Whether it will be allowed to happen is another question. Im not sure I’d want to impose another copy of me on the world, one is enough. There are so many large questions over ethics and morality surrounding this whole area. Though those with enough money and less of a moral compass will probably be able to push for their own secret clone on “The Island”.


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