Perhaps that’s because the bond between a human and a domestic cat is so individualized and complex, involving factors that just can’t be reproduced in the lab.
Nevertheless, we cat lovers do wonder how cloning works and if it’s possible for cats.
The animal cloning procedure is straightforward enough but there are a lot of practical problems to overcome, as well as some legal and ethical questions to be considered (though this isn’t part of the intense controversy over potentially cloning human beings).
And yes, domestic cats have been successfully cloned.
CC and Little Nicky
Here is a (very) little background on cloning before we meet these two record-holding kitty clones.
Two different but very common ways that life on Earth reproduces itself are cloning and sex. Each has impressive results.
Whales, for instance, are mammals that took advantage of an empty predator niche in the seas after the marine reptiles disappeared in the K/T extinction. They reproduce sexually, like all mammals, and for a while one whale species–the blue whale–was the largest known living being on the planet.
Whales lost that title when experts discovered some extremely large natural clones out there, including Pando, a colony of identical male aspens in Utah (and possibly the heaviest known living organism), and Oregon’s Humongous Fungus–a serious contender for Earth’s largest life form at roughly 4 square miles (10 km2) in size.
Too, down through the centuries horticulturists and farmers have cloned plants. Some European grapes, according to Wikipedia, have been propagated this way for thousands of years. Potatoes and bananas have also changed a lot from their ancestors thanks to this type of cloning.
In the lab, geneticists do molecular and cell cloning on embryos for research or for therapeutic purposes. And yes, that makes me uncomfortable and it is controversial.
Nevertheless, from the mid-1980s on, researchers presented the world with a series of cloning faits accomplis–two sheep cloned from embryonic cells in 1984 and 1995, and the famous Dolly, cloned from somatic cells (non-reproductive cells like those used today), in 1996.
The news made cloning more personal for the public. Few people outside labs had been very interested in earlier cloning efforts going back to the 1950s. It’s hard for most of us to relate to amphibians and single-celled organisms, but sheep . . . !. Not only do we herd them, enjoy their weird little “baas”, and wear their wool, but also sheep are complex mammals, just like us. Could humans be cloned, too?
The public debate over cloning ethics began with Dolly and it still goes on, shedding much heat and a little light along the way.
In the meantime, Science just kept its head down and forged ahead after Dolly. The next cloned animal to make headlines was a domestic cat.
CC, a tabby and white kitten, was born in late December 2001, but the news was held until 2002, after she had had successfully completed all her shots and her immune system was fully mature.
To produce this cloned domestic cat, geneticists put the nucleus of one cat cell into a denucleated egg cell. After cell division began the way it would in a normally fertilized egg, the embryo was implanted into a surrogate mother cat, who brought the cloned kitten to term.
Besides being the first cloned pet, later in life CC also became the first clone to give birth.
In 2003, Nicky, an elderly Maine Coon fancy-cat in Texas, died. His owner paid a new company, Genetic Savings and Clone, $50,000 to clone him. Little Nicky, the first commercially cloned pet, was born in 2004. He was not the next clone after CC, as this company had already cloned four other cats.
Still, cloning dogs was “the Holy Grail of commercial animal cloning.” (Oransky) Genetic Savings and Clone had actually been set up to clone a dog named Missy, and while the company furthered research into dog cloning, which is much more challenging than cats, it closed in 2006 without ever having produced a “Little Missy.”
That was about a year after Snuppy, the first cloned dog, was born in South Korea.
Today ViaGen is the only US company in the pet cloning business. Their first dog clone–Nubia–was born in 2016, and since then ViaGen has produced almost a hundred puppies and kittens.
Is pet cloning safe?
There is no easy answer to this question.
Certainly CC did fine, and while Little Nicky seems to have disappeared from the online news after his birth, I haven’t seen this historic cat’s death announcement anywhere or any news about possible health problems.
Dolly the Sheep lived about half as long as a sheep born the normal way. Some said it was because of her cloning; others said it was natural. Apparently that is still under discussion.
Recent studies from Japan show that clones can live as long as the rest of their species if they make it through birth and the first two postnatal months. That’s a big “if,” though. Fetal and neonatal mortality is high.
And then there are all those egg donors, embryos, and surrogate mothers. That’s a lot of surgery.
CC, for example, was the sole survivor of 188 cloning attempts, with 87 embryos eventually implanted into 8 surrogate mothers. Only 2 pregnancies happened; of these, only one–CC’s–was a success. (Hartwell)
Does the definition of “safe” include all of the embryos and the lab cats who underwent procedures?
And then there is the more modern meaning of safe–secure. These days you can either preserve some of your pet’s tissue or clone it. Either way, your vet sends the company a tissue sample, which they either store in a freezer or clone.
On ViaGen’s FAQ, the company assures prospective customers that it will not use that tissue for anything other than cloning the pet.
There is no reason to doubt them–it’s good business practice.
But you do have to take their word for it. Regulation of the pet cloning industry is in its early stages, just like data privacy issues were when companies like Facebook were brand new.
Agencies and legislators are still working through the ramifications of cloning livestock for food. Nothing seems to be in place to stop unscrupulous people, if any are out there yet, from using your pet’s tissues for their own purposes, as well as yours.
This is a huge topic, of course. Here are some examples of what’s being discussed about pet cloning online:
- The ASPCA wants a moratorium
- Veterinarians continue to discuss the controversial procedure
- Science writers are looking into it (here and here, for example
- Business pitches keep coming–again, most of the attention in pet cloning focuses on dogs
- 500 new animals are reportedly cloned each day in a South Korean lab
- China is building the world’s largest animal cloning lab
It’s enough to make you just want to huddle down under a blanket with your OG pet, far away from the world and all its confusion and complications.
Here’s some reassuring news: they can’t clone an animal’s personality. That’s something built from shared experiences. So you and your pet cat are way ahead of Science.
Enjoy all the time you have together, for it is irreplaceable. It will also stay with you and support you when the time comes for parting, whether you choose to then go the cloning route or to say goodbye and move on.
Featured image: The Clone Wars. Piutus, CC BY 2.0.
Sources and more information:
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