Laboratory dogs and cats: the business of cloned pets

TOIn the photos, Marlon, Garlic and Marley look like ordinary pets: a lively white bulldog, an imposing cat and a honey-colored dog with floppy ears. But behind his bulging eyes is a lot of money and technology. Like more than a thousand dogs and cats around the world, the three were cloned on behalf of their owners.

Three well-known companies in the sector have given life to doubles of Marlon, Garlic and Marley: Sooam Biotech Research Foundation in South Korea, Sinogene in China and Viagen in the US. Commercial cloning of animals is not permitted in Germany. The procedure is considered an animal experiment and therefore, according to the Animal Welfare Act, it can only be carried out for specific purposes, such as research, and only with the approval of the responsible authorities.

But pet owners in Germany have also had four-legged friends cloned by foreign companies. Bulldog Marlon caused a sensation in 2018 as the first German clone dog. Marlon number one died from anesthesia during a routine operation at the age of four. To his owners, Sven and Simone J., from Saxony, he was like a member of the family and his death was a shock, they said at the time.

Simone and Sven J. hold Marlon, Germany’s first clone dog, in their arms

Source: Picture Alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild

For families like them, cloning companies offer hope of having their animal companions around again, even if they are dead. According to their websites, they can pay between 50,000 and 100,000 US dollars (that is, up to 90,000 euros). “A cloned dog is simply a genetic twin of your dog, born at a later date,” says the Viagen website. Sooam promotes dog cloning under the title “Not You But You.” Cats and horses can also be duplicated, according to the company’s website.

This photo taken on September 2, 2019 shows China's first cloned kitten named Garlic at Chinese company Sinogene, a pet cloning team that has cloned more than 40 dogs since 2017, in Beijing.  Cloning a dog costs a hefty 380,000 yuan ($53,000) and 250,000 yuan ($35,000) for a cat.  (AFP Photo)

Garlic, China’s first cloned kitten

Source: AFP/STR

Anyone who decides to do this must act quickly after the animal dies. Owners have a maximum of five days to provide companies with the necessary tissue samples. The company’s literature states that the animal carcass should be cooled, but never frozen. According to “Not You But You,” the “reunion” will occur in five months.

Claudia Klein, director of the Institute of Livestock Genetics at the Friedrich Loeffler Institute, explains to the question how the cloning process works in the laboratory. First of all, eggs are needed, which scientists obtain for research purposes, for example, from slaughterhouses or unnecessary ovaries.

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Simone and Sven with Marlon II - in front of the urn of Marlon I

The eggs are matured in the laboratory for 24 hours because they are immature in the ovaries. “That means that DNA is found in the cell like an unraveled ball of wool. After 24 hours, this untangled ball of wool is a beautifully wound ball of wool. That is the core,” explains the veterinarian.

For the next step you will need very good fine motor skills and a microscope with two joysticks. “It’s a bit like playing with a computer,” says Klein, describing the following steps: “With the left stick you guide a pipette, which basically contains the egg, and with the right stick you move a needle. This eliminates the nucleus because it has the genetic material of the slaughterhouse animal, which we do not want.” In the end you have a gutted egg.

A cell from the donor animal that is to be cloned enters this now empty egg. Most often these are connective tissue cells, for example from the skin. In the case of the famous Dolly clone sheep, this came from the udder. The problem is that the cell used is highly specialized, says Klein: “A skin cell like this is not an embryo.” Therefore, the egg now has to undertake a “giant task” and reprogram the DNA of the skin cell so that an embryo can develop. That rarely works.

Cloning is “inefficient”

“In general, cloning is ineffective,” explains the expert. The success rate is two to three percent. This means that from 100 prepared eggs, two to three viable clones develop.

Where in the body the donor cells come from doesn’t have a big influence on development, Klein says. After the eggs have been observed for a few days and the embryos have developed, they can be transferred to surrogate mothers who will carry the cloned babies.

“Host animals who have to raise the cloned animals suffer due to the administration of hormones and often very difficult births,” writes the German Animal Protection Association on its website. The association categorically rejects cloning and calls for a general ban, even for scientific purposes.

Veterinarian Klein confirms that animals pregnant with clones have a higher loss rate. Anomalies could occur, for example in the placenta, and anomalies such as the so-called large calf syndrome in cattle. The hatchlings are then unusually large.

Farm animals are also cloned

All over the world, not only pets are cloned, but also farm animals, such as cattle, so that they can produce a lot of milk. For about 20 years there have also been examples of high-performance horses for show jumping or polo. Researchers are also working to revive extinct species through clones.

If the cloning process ultimately works, the newborn animal will have the same nuclear DNA as the old animal, Klein explains. In principle it is comparable to an identical twin: an identical copy, but with limitations: in addition to the DNA of the cell nucleus, each egg also contains mitochondrial genetic material. Mitochondria are called organelles that provide energy to cells.

They have their own genetic material, although to a lesser extent than the cell nucleus. These mitochondrial genes are inherited through the maternal line, in the plasma of an egg. And in this genetic information cloned animals differ from the source of their cell nucleus.

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Woolly mammoths, illustration

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Dolly the Sheep.  File photo dated 29/07/15 of Dolly the sheep with British embryologist Professor Sir Ian Wilmut.  Stem cell research could be 20 years behind where it is today if Dolly the sheep had never been born, according to the scientist whose team created the world's first mammal cloned from an adult cell.  Publication date: Tuesday July 5, 2016. See PA story SCIENCE Dolly.  Photo credit should read: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire URN:28000373

Another factor that does not make animals 100 percent the same is called epigenetics, Klein says. This term refers to a biochemical form of regulation that determines how active genes are. For example, certain DNA characteristics can develop depending on environmental conditions. Coat patterns can also vary: old Marlon had a brown spot on his head, while his clone Marlon 2 had it over his eye.

“Cells can spread somewhat randomly during development. It’s like baking a cake and sprinkling chocolate chips on top. “If you do this with two cakes, they will both have chocolate chips, but they will be arranged slightly differently,” explains Klein.

It is difficult to answer whether character traits or certain performance characteristics are also transferred during cloning. “It always depends on funding,” says Klein. There are no large-scale studies on this yet.

More about pets

A physiotherapist with a pug in a swimming pool.

Physiotherapy for four-legged friends

A senior Great Dane resting on the couch at home, with visible signs of aging on his muzzle, close to his face

In dogs, fractures are particularly common in the long, thin bones of the legs.

The German Animal Welfare Association describes pet cloning as an “expensive illusion” because the character is not recreated. The owners of the clones of Marlon, Garlic and Marley see it differently. “That’s the right feeling and that’s my Ajo. He’s back! “, the Sinogene company quotes its satisfied customers, whose stories are presented on the website.

The “parents of Marlon, Germany’s first clone dog” have even created a website where they offer to put people whose dog has died in contact with Sooam. And to support the preparation of the cloning process. They also answer frequently asked questions about whether they would do it again: “At first we had our doubts, but our experience taught us otherwise and, in fact, we would do it exactly the same way over and over again.”

No matter how similar the animals may be, it is not necessary to work on relationships with the new animal, says psychologist and researcher of human-animal relationships, Andrea Beetz. The new animal, in turn, is shaped by the current social environment, and not by the one the old animal had years ago.

Relationship between humans and animals.

“You don’t do the new animal justice if I always compare it to the old animal and have certain expectations,” says Beetz, who teaches healing education at IU International University. This is not good for the human-animal relationship. In general, however, it would be easier to engage with a similar animal than one with completely different characteristics.

Instead of cloning your deceased pet, Beetz recommends allowing the grieving process to take place. Although this might take a few months, psychologically it is completely fine. Beetz says, “We are always faced with loss and change in life. With pets, it’s actually an opportunity to deal with them and manage them.”

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