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July 28th 2008 is a day that Bernann McKinney will never forget. The Californian-based farmer was looking at five identical copies of Booger, her beloved, but deceased pit bull terrier; a victim of cancer a couple of years previously. The cloned puppies had just been born at Seoul National University and cost Ms McKinney $50,000, a sum she believed was worth it. "Booger was my partner and my friend," she said at a press conference in the South Korean capital.
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Booger was taken in as a stray several years ago, and the bond between dog and owner was cemented when he saved her from a vicious attack by another dog. When he was diagnosed with cancer Ms McKinney had some of his skin cells preserved, in the hope that science could help her out. The South Korean scientists, from a company called RNL Bio, were able to create several embryos out of these cells, and implanted them into two surrogate mothers.
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Disadvantages of Cloning
Cloning animals, particularly dogs, is a notoriously difficult procedure. Dogs have an unpredictable ovulation cycle and there are many problems in trying to obtain a mature egg. Typically this kind of genetic manipulation requires the creation of dozens of embryos before a viable one is born.
To create a cloned animal a donor cell is needed, in this case a cell from Booger's ear. This is a somatic cell, a non-sex cell, and it contains the full compliment of genes needed for an organism to grow. Next an egg cell is taken from a female of the same species as the animal to be cloned. The egg's nucleus, which contains most of its DNA is removed, a process called enucleation. The donor cell is then introduced into the egg and a jolt of electricity fuses the two together. The resulting embryo is then bathed in chemicals to encourage it to divide like a normal zygote, or single cell embryo.
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What other animals have been cloned? Let's just say it's not the first time a cloned animal has been created. The world's first cloned dog was an Afghan hound named Snuppy, in 2005. Since then several others have been created including copies of police sniffer dogs, but this is the first commercial success.
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Cloning arouses furious opposition. Critics argue that not enough is known yet about the effects on an animal's lifespan, or physiology. Of the species cloned so far, some have suffered from faulty immune systems and many have died prematurely. Opponents are also appalled at the sheer number of embryos that have to be destroyed or are spontaneously aborted.
With pet cloning there are concerns that people genuinely believe they will be getting their dead animal back. It is not pet resurrection. It may look like the deceased, and genetically speaking it is effectively a later-born identical twin, but it is not the same animal. Behaviour and character are the result of a complex interplay of factors; nutrition, environment and perception of the world for example. It is not a perfect copy of the original.
Cloning companies insist they're offering a valuable service, citing anecdotal evidence of behavioural similiaries between clone and original in cats.
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Raining Cats and Dogs
Pet cloning looks like it is here to stay. RNL Bio will continue working in the field and hope to be cloning 300 dogs next year. They expect the cost of their service to drop as the technology improves. There is also a large market of potential customers who are unwilling to accept the fact that their precious animal has left the planet and can't be brought back. It appears they would prefer a clone rather than the much cheaper option of buying a new pet.