Copycat! The Controversy Around Cloning Cats
Cloning must be one of the most controversial areas of biotechnology, and possibly also (as is so often the case with controversial topics!) one of the most interesting. Today we take a brief look at what cloning is and where cats fit into this highly contentious phenomenon.
What is Animal Cloning?
Cloning is a process of producing individuals with identical or virtually identical DNA. It involves taking a tissue sample and extracting specific genetic material from the cells, which is then inserted into the egg of a foster animal (replacing its own genetic material) so that an embryo can grow. A successful embryo is then transferred to a surrogate mother to undergo growth as normal for pregnancy and birth. It is comparable to artificially creating a genetic twin that will be born at a later date to the original animal.
One hotspot of animal cloning has been the Argentinian polo scene, where some elite riders have six or seven cloned ponies in the pens, genetic replicas of some of the top mounts in the sport(2). In this fast-paced game, certain equine characteristics such as size, speed, agility and temperament are hugely influential on the outcome of the match. The Argentinian polo association accepts cloning and so the development of these traits has been allowed to leapfrog over the slower and more unpredictable process of selective breeding. In attaining such a high level of similarity in temperament, physical attributes and ability; it’s arguable that these riders learn to perfect their riding technique on a specific horse, instead of having to adjust between different steeds.
It’s certainly fascinating and very impressive science, but comes at a high cost, both financially and also in terms of ethical considerations. But we’ll get to that part later!
What Role Have Cats Played in Animal Cloning?
The first successfully cloned mammal was Dolly the sheep, who was born in 1996. Five years later, the first cloned cat was born in Texas. CC, short for Copy Cat, or Carbon Copy (depending on who you ask!) was cloned from a domestic shorthair called Rainbow, and contrary to what you may expect, they were not in fact identical in appearance, even though they shared exactly the same genetic identity(4).
Rainbow was a calico, while CC was a piebald. Surprisingly, this kind of discrepancy happens quite commonly in cloning as some traits, including coat pattern, are subject to random variation during development(7). Their personalities were also quite different. CC had a high level of interaction with humans as a kitten and her character was more curious and outgoing than Rainbow(7). CC lived a long and healthy life, and even produced her own kittens, which was a big step for the cloning industry.
In 2019, China cloned their first cat from the skin cells of a deceased cat called Garlic. The devastated owner of Garlic paid approximately £27 000(3) for the procedure, which involved generating 40 cloned embryos from the eggs of other cats, which were inserted into four surrogate mothers, most of which miscarried during pregnancy(3). As progressive as the science may be, the process clearly involves many cats undergoing invasive procedures in labs - cats which in stark contrast to the very expensive final clone, have little value attributed to themselves. It also involves the creation of many embryos which are doomed to fail, and of course multiple clones which have varying degrees of “success” – the owner of the second Garlic was apparently disappointed that the final clone did not look identical to his former pet(3). The success of a clone depends not only its similarity to the original but also its own level of health and immunity, which the process of cloning may compromise(1). In countries where commercial cloning is legal, regulations regarding exactly what happens to “unsuccessful” clones are not always clear.
What Are The Criticisms of Cloning?
Cloning is an ethical minefield from beginning to end! Aside from the philosophical debate of creating life artificially and the implications this may have if cloned animals started to contribute to the gene pool of the species; there are also more practical considerations. The welfare of cloned animals as well as surrogates must be considered. Also, the target market of commercial cloning companies is often grieving owners, who have just lost a very special member of their family and are battling to envision a future without them. Cloning does not extend the life of the lost pet, but only attempts to create a copy, from scratch.
Which leads us only to more questions. Such as, to what degree is anyone a slave to their genetic code? Environment certainly plays a critical role. Life in the womb, kittenhood and individual experiences and memories all shape how our cats develop. And to take it even further, how much is an individual the simple sum of nature and nurture? Or is there more to it than that - some extra intangible thing which makes us ourselves that science cannot explain? These are the questions that make cloning such an interesting scientific venture.
Cloning in the UK
As much as cloning your cat may flippantly sound like a great idea, there is obviously a huge amount more to consider in practice. In 2015 the EU voted to ban the cloning of animals for non—research purposes(5) and, in the UK, all cloning for research or medical purposes must be approved under strict controls to safeguard animal welfare(6). Unfortunately, this is not the case in other parts of the world.
It’s an interesting concept. If I had my cat, Gorbachev, cloned, and tried to replicate his development (which is impossible with his murky past), but if I could, how alike would they be? Would Gorbachev 2.0 also feign affection by sitting on my lap while simultaneously slashing his tail? Would he also sell his soul for a piece of popcorn? Would he also favour lying in that particular spot of sun? I don’t know. Nor, I think, would I want to.
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Arts and Culture. (2019, November 19). Copy cat: Why cloning dead pets doesn’t always have a happy ending. The National UAE. Retrieved from: https://www.thenational.ae/arts-culture/copy-cat-why-cloning-dead-pets-doesn-t-always-have-a-happy-ending-1.939673
Avalos, S. (2018, November 28). Argentine polo turns to genetics to produce champions. Phys Org. Retrieved from: https://phys.org/news/2018-11-argentine-polo-genetics-champions.html
Lanese, N. (2019, September 6). China’s first cloned kitten, Garlic. The Scientist. Retrieved from: https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/chinas-first-cloned-kitten--garlic-66400
Myers, M. (2020, March 4). World’s first cloned cat dies. Texas A &M Today. Retrieved from: https://today.tamu.edu/2020/03/04/worlds-first-cloned-cat-dies
The Roslin Institute. (2020, May 18). Cloning FAQs. The University of Edinburgh. Retrieved from: https://www.ed.ac.uk/roslin/about/dolly/facts/cloning
Understanding Animal Research. (2020, August 7). Retrieved from: https://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/animals/areas-research/animal-cloning/#
Yin, S. (2011, June 21). Cloning Cats: Rainbow and CC prove that cloning won’t resurrect your pet. Cattledog Publishing: The Art & Science Of Animal Behaviour. Retrieved from: https://drsophiayin.com/blog/entry/cloning-cats-rainbow-and-cc-prove-that-cloning0wont-resurrect-your-pet