Your Beloved Pet Is Old. Should You Clone It?
Melvin was a special dog. A mixture of Catahoula and Doberman with black and tan markings, he was the office greeter, barking hellos to everyone who visited the Dupont Veterinary Clinic in Lafayette, Louisiana, which is owned by his human companions, Dr. Phillip Dupont and his wife, Paula. The couple say he's the best dog they ever owned.
When Melvin passed away, having two identical replicas helped ease the couple's grief.
He seemed to have an uncanny knack for understanding what they were saying, he could find lost car keys in tall grasses and the Duponts trusted him so much they felt comfortable having him babysit their grandson unattended in the backyard.
So when the 75-pound canine turned 9 and began to show signs of age, the Duponts sent off some of his skin cells to a lab in South Korea, the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, to have him cloned. The Duponts toured the South Korean facilities and were satisfied that the animals were being treated well. While the first cloned puppy died from distemper, the second attempt produced two healthy animals—which the couple named Ken and Henry. When Melvin did pass away nearly two years later, in 2014, having two identical replicas helped ease the couple's grief. Even though it cost about $70,000 to clone Melvin, it was well worth it. "Melvin gave us a lot of pleasure," says Paula Dupont, "and this was less than the price of a new Land Cruiser."
As the technology improves, costs will tumble, making pet cloning more affordable for the mainstream.
The news has been filled recently with stories of celebrities such as Barbra Streisand or billionaire Barry Diller and his fashion icon wife, Diane von Furstenberg, spending big bucks to preserve their beloved pets—a practice New York magazine called "a laughable, extravagant waste of money." But cloning Fido isn't just for the ultra-wealthy anymore. Texas-based ViaGen now offers a domestic cloning service that will replicate Lassie for $50,000 and Garfield's kittens for a mere $25,000. While the exact number of cloned pets isn't known, the South Korean company says it has cloned about 800 pets while ViaGen has cloned about 100 cats and dogs. And as the technology improves, costs will tumble, making it more affordable for the mainstream, says Ron Gillespie, who heads PerPETuate, a Massachusetts-based outfit that collects and cryo preserves pet DNA, and works closely with ViaGen.
Even if the animals are genetic twins, biologists say, there are no guarantees their personalities will match, too.
While replicating Fido is becoming more feasible, should you? Animal rights organizations like The Humane Society and PETA are sharply critical of the practice, which is largely unregulated, and think it's outrageous to spend $50,000 or more to preserve Fluffy's genetic makeup when millions of cats and dogs are languishing in shelters and millions more are euthanized every year. And even if the animals are genetic twins, biologists say, there are no guarantees their personalities will match, too. Like humans, dogs' personalities are influenced by their environment and there are always variations in how the genes are expressed--although the Duponts say that Ken and Henry seem more like Melvin every day. "Their personalities are identical," says Paula.
Clones Ken and Henry, with Dr. Dupont and 10-year-old Melvin. Though all three dogs are genetic twins, their markings differ because the environment can influence how genes are expressed.
Still, the loss of a beloved pet can be incredibly painful, and in some cases, cloning can help deal with deep psychological wounds. When Monni Must's daughter died suddenly at age 28, the Michigan-based photographer adopted her child's black Lab, Billy Bean. As the dog got older and frailer, Must realized she couldn't handle losing her last link to her daughter—so she ponied up $50,000 to have the animal cloned. "I knew that I was falling apart," Must told Agence France-Presse. "The thought of Billy dying was just more than I could handle."
But these heated disputes miss what bioethicists believe is the real ethical dilemma—the fate of the female animals that provide the eggs and gestate the cloned puppies. "This issue tends to get framed as 'it's their personal choice, it's their money and they can do what they want with it,'" says Jessica Pierce, a bioethicist and author of Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets. "But this whole enterprise has all this collateral damage and behind-the-scenes impacts that people ignore. No one is talking about the dogs who are sacrificing themselves for this indulgence, and are suffering and being tormented just to have your clone."
"Even in the best-case scenarios, the cloned pet may go through several rounds of failed reproductive attempts—failed pregnancies, still births, and deformities."
Animal cloning, of course, is not new. Dolly, the sheep, made her debut in 1996 as the first cloned mammal. In 2005, Korea's Sooam Biotech cloned the first dog, and cloning horses and cows has become almost routine. Typically, the cloning process for dogs is fairly uncomplicated. It entails the use of a group of female dogs whose hormones are artificially manipulated with drugs to promote them to produce eggs. The eggs are then surgically harvested from donor dogs' ovaries. The immature eggs are stripped of their genetic information and then the pet's DNA is fused with the egg. When the embryo begins to develop, it is then transplanted to the womb of a surrogate dog.
However, cloning can have a high failure rate. When South Korea's Sooam Biotech lab cloned the first dog in 2005, there were 1000 failures—which means that number of eggs were fertilized and began to gestate, but at some point their development failed. And this figure doesn't include the number of dogs born with deformities serious enough that they are incompatible with life and need to be euthanized. "Even in the best-case scenarios, the cloned pet may go through several rounds of failed reproductive attempts—failed pregnancies, still births, and deformities," says Insoo Hyun, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "You can't do just one egg and one transfer. That won't happen. There is no guarantee that the very first time you will have a healthy animal. They're not miracle workers and you can't fight biology."
"You just have to let your pet go. It's all part of the experience."
But Ron Gillespie, who's been in the animal breeding business for decades, thinks these fears are overblown and that cloning is similar to the selective breeding that goes on all the time with cattle and even with champion racehorses. "We're really the victim of a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding," he says. "Right now, on average, we're dealing with three dogs: two that supply eggs and one to carry the embryo to term."
Still, this debate skirts the hard realities: dogs and cats simply have shorter lifespans than humans, and ethicists and animal rights activists believe there are better ways to deal with that grief. "You just have to let your pet go," says Hyun. "It's all part of the experience."
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Kids stressing you out? They could be protecting your health.
- A new device unlocks the heart's secrets
- Super-ager gene transplants
- Surgeons could 3D print your organs before operations
- A skull cap looks into the brain like an fMRI
This article originally appeared in One Health/One Planet, a single-issue magazine that explores how climate change and other environmental shifts are making us more vulnerable to infectious diseases by land and by sea - and how scientists are working on solutions.
On a warm summer day, forests, meadows, and riverbanks should be abuzz with insects—from butterflies to beetles and bees. But bugs aren’t as abundant as they used to be, and that’s not a plus for people and the planet, scientists say. The declining numbers of insects, coupled with climate change, can have devastating effects for people in more ways than one. “Insects have been around for a very long time and can live well without humans, but humans cannot live without insects and the many services they provide to us,” says Philipp Lehmann, a researcher in the Department of Zoology at Stockholm University in Sweden. Their decline is not just bad, Lehmann adds. “It’s devastating news for humans.
”Insects and other invertebrates are the most diverse organisms on the planet. They fill most niches in terrestrial and aquatic environments and drive ecosystem functions. Many insects are also economically vital because they pollinate crops that humans depend on for food, including cereals, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. A paper published in PNAS notes that insects alone are worth more than $70 billion a year to the U.S. economy. In places where pollinators like honeybees are in decline, farmers now buy them from rearing facilities at steep prices rather than relying on “Mother Nature.”
And because many insects serve as food for other species—bats, birds and freshwater fish—they’re an integral part of the ecosystem’s food chain. “If you like to eat good food, you should thank an insect,” says Scott Hoffman Black, an ecologist and executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Oregon. “And if you like birds in your trees and fish in your streams, you should be concerned with insect conservation.”
Deforestation, urbanization, and agricultural spread have eaten away at large swaths of insect habitat. The increasingly poorly controlled use of insecticides, which harms unintended species, and the proliferation of invasive insect species that disrupt native ecosystems compound the problem.
“There is not a single reason why insects are in decline,” says Jessica L. Ware, associate curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and president of the Entomological Society of America. “There are over one million described insect species, occupying different niches and responding to environmental stressors in different ways.”
Jessica Ware, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, is using DNA methods to monitor insects.
In addition to habitat loss fueling the decline in insect populations, the other “major drivers” Ware identified are invasive species, climate change, pollution, and fluctuating levels of nitrogen, which play a major role in the lifecycle of plants, some of which serve as insect habitants and others as their food. “The causes of world insect population declines are, unfortunately, very easy to link to human activities,” Lehmann says.
Climate change will undoubtedly make the problem worse. “As temperatures start to rise, it can essentially make it too hot for some insects to survive,” says Emily McDermott, an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at the University of Arkansas. “Conversely in other areas, it could potentially also allow other insects to expand their ranges.”
Without Pollinators Humans Will Starve
We may not think much of our planet’s getting warmer by only one degree Celsius, but it can spell catastrophe for many insects, plants, and animals, because it’s often accompanied by less rainfall. “Changes in precipitation patterns will have cascading consequences across the tree of life,” says David Wagner, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut. Insects, in particular, are “very vulnerable” because “they’re small and susceptible to drying.”
For instance, droughts have put the monarch butterfly at risk of being unable to find nectar to “recharge its engine” as it migrates from Canada and New England to Mexico for winter, where it enters a hibernation state until it journeys back in the spring. “The monarch is an iconic and a much-loved insect,” whose migration “is imperiled by climate change,” Wagner says.
Warming and drying trends in the Western United States are perhaps having an even more severe impact on insects than in the eastern region. As a result, “we are seeing fewer individual butterflies per year,” says Matt Forister, a professor of insect ecology at the University of Nevada, Reno.
There are hundreds of butterfly species in the United States and thousands in the world. They are pollinators and can serve as good indicators of other species’ health. “Although butterflies are only one group among many important pollinators, in general we assume that what’s bad for butterflies is probably bad for other insects,” says Forister, whose research focuses on butterflies. Climate change and habitat destruction are wreaking havoc on butterflies as well as plants, leading to a further indirect effect on caterpillars and butterflies.
Different insect species have different levels of sensitivity to environmental changes. For example, one-half of the bumblebee species in the United States are showing declines, whereas the other half are not, says Christina Grozinger, a professor of entomology at the Pennsylvania State University. Some species of bumble bees are even increasing in their range, seemingly resilient to environmental changes. But other pollinators are dwindling to the point that farmers have to buy from the rearing facilities, which is the case for the California almond industry. “This is a massive cost to the farmer, which could be provided for free, in case the local habitats supported these pollinators,” Lehmann says.
For bees and other insects, climate change can harm the plants they depend on for survival or have a negative impact on the insects directly. Overly rainy and hot conditions may limit flowering in plants or reduce the ability of a pollinator to forage and feed, which then decreases their reproductive success, resulting in dwindling populations, Grozinger explains.
“Nutritional deprivation can also make pollinators more sensitive to viruses and parasites and therefore cause disease spread,” she says. “There are many ways that climate change can reduce our pollinator populations and make it more difficult to grow the many fruit, vegetable and nut crops that depend on pollinators.”
Disease-Causing Insects Can Bring More Outbreaks
While some much-needed insects are declining, certain disease-causing species may be spreading and proliferating, which is another reason for human concern. Many mosquito types spread malaria, Zika virus, West Nile virus, and a brain infection called equine encephalitis, along with other diseases as well as heartworms in dogs, says Michael Sabourin, president of the Vermont Entomological Society. An animal health specialist for the state, Sabourin conducts vector surveys that identify ticks and mosquitoes.
Scientists refer to disease-carrying insects as vector species and, while there’s a limited number of them, many of these infections can be deadly. Fleas were a well-known vector for the bubonic plague, while kissing bugs are a vector for Chagas disease, a potentially life-threatening parasitic illness in humans, dogs, and other mammals, Sabourin says.
As the planet heats up, some of the creepy crawlers are able to survive milder winters or move up north. Warmer temperatures and a shorter snow season have spawned an increasing abundance of ticks in Maine, including the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis), known to transmit Lyme disease, says Sean Birkel, an assistant professor in the Climate Change Institute and Cooperative Extension at the University of Maine.
Coupled with more frequent and heavier precipitation, rising temperatures bring a longer warm season that can also lead to a longer period of mosquito activity. “While other factors may be at play, climate change affects important underlying conditions that can, in turn, facilitate the spread of vector-borne disease,” Birkel says.
For example, if mosquitoes are finding fewer of their preferred food sources, they may bite humans more. Both male and female mosquitoes feed on sugar as part of their normal behavior, but if they aren’t eating their fill, they may become more bloodthirsty. One recent paper found that sugar-deprived Anopheles gambiae females go for larger blood meals to stay in good health and lay eggs. “More blood meals equals more chances to pick up and transmit a pathogen,” McDermott says, He adds that climate change could reduce the number of available plants to feed on. And while most mosquitoes are “generalist sugar-feeders” meaning that they will likely find alternatives, losing their favorite plants can make them hungrier for blood
Similar to the effect of losing plants, mosquitoes may get turned onto people if they lose their favorite animal species. For example, some studies found that Culex pipiens mosquitoes that transmit the West Nile virus feed primarily on birds in summer. But that changes in the fall, at least in some places. Because there are fewer birds around, C. pipiens switch to mammals, including humans. And if some disease-carrying insect species proliferate or increase their ranges, that increases chances for human infection, says McDermott. “A larger concern is that climate change could increase vector population sizes, making it more likely that people or animals would be bitten by an infected insect.”
Science Can Help Bring Back the Buzz
To help friendly insects thrive and keep the foes in check, scientists need better ways of trapping, counting, and monitoring insects. It’s not an easy job, but artificial intelligence and molecular methods can help. Ware’s lab uses various environmental DNA methods to monitor freshwater habitats. Molecular technologies hold much promise. The so-called DNA barcodes, in which species are identified using a short string of their genes, can now be used to identify birds, bees, moths and other creatures, and should be used on a larger scale, says Wagner, the University of Connecticut professor. “One day, something akin to Star Trek’s tricorder will soon be on sale down at the local science store.”
Scientists are also deploying artificial intelligence, or AI, to identify insects in agricultural systems and north latitudes where there are fewer bugs, Wagner says. For instance, some automated traps already use the wingbeat frequencies of mosquitoes to distinguish the harmless ones from the disease-carriers. But new technology and software are needed to further expand detection based on vision, sound, and odors.
“Because of their ubiquity, enormity of numbers, and seemingly boundless diversity, we desperately need to develop molecular and AI technologies that will allow us to automate sampling and identification,” says Wagner. “That would accelerate our ability to track insect populations, alert us to the presence of new disease vectors, exotic pest introductions, and unexpected declines.”