The way we were: The science and ethics of dog cloning

Barbra Streisand has done it, but what are the ethical concerns regarding cloning your beloved pooch?

The death of a beloved pet can be as traumatic as the loss of a human friend or family member. While grief and mourning after such a death is a relatively universal experience, there is another response to such a loss that is available only to those of wealth and privilege. That is, to shell out exorbitant amounts of money harvesting your pet’s genetic material in order to create a cloned version of them, enabling them to live forever. Or at least for another 12 to 15 years.

American music icon Barbra Streisand recently lost her beloved 14-year-old dog, Samantha. Samantha was a constant companion to Streisand, often accompanying her on tour and watching her performances from back stage, perhaps joining in from time to time. So, when Samantha looked about ready to move on to the next realm, Barbra like any thoroughly bonkers celebrity worth their salt, went ahead and had her cloned. Twice.

The cloning procedure first involves taking a DNA sample from the ‘target’ animal, and in the case of Samantha, cells were taken from inside her cheek. In the meantime, eggs are harvested from another female dog and the nucleus is removed from each egg, essentially removing the genetic material of the donor dog. The DNA sample from the dog to be cloned is then injected into the donor eggs. Cells within the egg are forced to divide using electric stimulation, and then transplanted into the womb of yet another dog who acts as the surrogate mother, carrying the growing embryos and birthing the resulting cloned puppies. Voila! Samantha 2.0.

This technology is not necessarily that new, but Streisand’s star power has forced the story into the headlines and hopefully forces a broader audience to consider the question — just because we can do this, does it mean we should? As should be evident from the explanation above — cloning one dog actually involves the use of multiple dogs. Naturally this raises concerns about animal welfare. Scientific American reported that when creating the world’s first cloned dog, Snuppy, over 1000 embryos were created, and 123 female dogs were used as surrogates. Only three pregnancies resulted, and only one cloned dog survived. You can’t help but wonder how many dogs were involved in the cloning of Streisand’s precious pooch.

Even if there were some way to avoid harm, is a genetic copy ever going to be as good as the original? Well, no. While you can reproduce a genotype, the same isn’t true for phenotype. The phenotype is the observable properties of an animal, including behaviour, and while these can be dictated by genotype, they are also influenced by aspects of the environment. So, even though Samantha’s genotype has been cloned, the resulting dogs are likely to be quite different from the original. This is already apparent to Streisand, who was quoted in Variety saying, “they have different personalities … I’m waiting for them to get older so I can see if they have her brown eyes and her seriousness.” I hope she is prepared to be disappointed, though judging by the decision to clone her dog in the first place — I’m guessing that she does not cope well with not getting what she wants.

Finally, let us consider the outrageous expense. Samantha was a Coton du Tulear, predictably a small, white, fluffy thing. While a fresh-out-of-the-box Coton du Tulear puppy costs $1500, cloning a pre-owned Coton du Tulear will cost around $60,000. Good news for cat owners though — even genetic engineering firms acknowledge the inferior nature of cats and cloning your old tuxedo cat will only set you back $30,000. That is, assuming you’ve been thoughtful enough to keep some genetic samples lying in wait — time to get Beryl out of the deep freeze!

Perhaps Barb’s money would have been better spent doing what any normal person does and keeping a good taxidermist on retainer. It’s true what they say, you can’t go home again.

Dr Jessica L Paterson, Senior Research Fellow, CQUniversity, Appleton Institute

Adelaide In-depth

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