Copydog, Copycat

  • Share
  • Read Later
I've never met a human worth cloning," says cloning expert Mark Westhusin from the cramped confines of his lab at Texas A&M University. "It's a stupid endeavor." That's an interesting choice of adjective, coming from a man who has spent millions of dollars trying to clone a 13-year-old dog named Missy. So far, he and his team have not succeeded, though they have cloned two calves and expect to clone a cat soon. They just might succeed in cloning Missy this spring--or perhaps not for another five years. It seems the reproductive system of man's best friend is one of the mysteries of modern science.

Westhusin's experience with cloning animals leaves him vexed by all this talk of human cloning. In three years of work on the Missyplicity project, using hundreds upon hundreds of canine eggs, the A&M team has produced only a dozen or so embryos carrying Missy's DNA. None have survived the transfer to a surrogate mom. The wastage of eggs and the many spontaneously aborted fetuses may be acceptable when you're dealing with cats or bulls, he argues, but not with humans. "Cloning is incredibly inefficient, and also dangerous," he says.

Even so, dog cloning is a commercial opportunity, with a nice research payoff. Ever since Dolly the sheep was cloned in 1997, Westhusin's phone at A&M's College of Veterinary Medicine has been ringing with people calling in hopes of duplicating their cats and dogs, cattle and horses. "A lot of people want to clone pets. A lot of people. Especially if the price is right," says Westhusin, raising his eyebrows. "A lot." Cost is no obstacle for Missy's mysterious West Coast billionaire owner; he's plopped down $3.7 million so far to fund A&M's research.

Contrary to some media reports, Missy is not deceased. The owner, who wishes to remain anonymous to protect his privacy, wants a twin to carry on Missy's fine qualities after she does die. The prototype is, by all accounts, athletic, good-natured and supersmart. She's not a show dog, as one might expect, but a mongrel--collie and husky--rescued from a pound. Missy's master does not expect an exact copy of her. He knows her clone may not have her temperament. In a statement of purpose, Missy's owners and the A&M team say they are "both looking forward to studying the ways that her clones differ from Missy."

Besides cloning a great mutt, in other words, the project may contribute insight into the old question of nature vs. nurture. It could also lead to the cloning of special rescue dogs and endangered canids like the Ethiopian wolf and African wild dog. At the A&M labs, a picture of Missy's cheerful mug hangs over the micromanipulator, where technicians inject her genetic code into eggs from donors whose own DNA is of no particular interest to anyone. The biggest problem is getting eggs. Because dogs randomly go into heat only every six months to a year, there's a lot of waiting for one of the lab's 50 dogs to enter estrus. Last week a bitch named Betsy caused a flurry of activity when she did just that, but no one knows whether she will actually ovulate--or if another female will go into heat and thus be ready as a surrogate.

Despite the lack of a canine breakthrough, dog owners are the biggest clients of Genetic Savings & Clone, a commercial spin-off of Missyplicity that offers to freeze pet DNA for future cloning for $895 plus $100 annual storage. A white canister--which looks like an Artoo Detoo unit--is already full of hundreds of trays containing genetic material from cats and dogs, with a few prized horses and cattle nestled in the whirling eddies of subzero liquid nitrogen.

The fate of the dog samples will depend on Westhusin's work. He knows that even if he gets a dog viably pregnant, the offspring, should they survive, will face the problems shown at birth by other cloned animals: abnormalities like immature lungs and cardiovascular and weight problems. "Why would you ever want to clone humans," Westhusin asks, "when we're not even close to getting it worked out in animals yet?"