Fairfax / California: The most difficult thing about the cloned puppies is not telling them apart, but explaining why they don't look exactly alike. This was the problem Lou Hawthorne faced on a recent afternoon hike with Mira and MissyToo, two dogs whose embryos were created from the preserved, recycled and repurposed nuclear DNA of the original Missy, a border collie-husky mix who died in 2002.
To be sure, they have a very strong resemblance to each other and to Missy. It’s just that sometimes, as soon as people hear that the dogs are clones, the questions start coming.
Happiness twofold: Lou Hawthorne with his cloned dogs MissyToo and Mira in Mill Valley, California. Heidi Schumann / NYT
Hawthorne, who is 48, is highly invested in the notion of likeness. With clones, after all, what good does similar do? It is Hawthorne’s biotech company, BioArts, which is based here in the Bay Area but has arrangements with a laboratory in South Korea, that performed the actual cloning.
He also has reason to be sensitive to questions that touch on the authenticity of the clones, given the history of his chief geneticist, Hwang Woo Suk of the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation in South Korea. Hwang is perhaps best known for fraudulently reporting in 2004 that a team he led had successfully cloned human embryos and stem cells. After the false claims were unearthed, he was fired by Seoul National University, where he did his research as a professor. But he is also widely acknowledged for having been involved in successfully cloning an Afghan hound in 2005.
“Dr Hwang’s past is obviously controversial, but we feel that his lab and his record when it comes to dog cloning are the best in the field,” Hawthorne said. “He’s been very open with me about admitting his mistakes. Nobody says he lied about cloning animals.”
Elizabeth Wictum, associate director of the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of California, Davis, said that earlier this year, she and her staff had taken sets of DNA extracts from Hawthorne’s puppies and compared them with stored samples of Missy’s DNA, and concluded that the results were “consistent with clones”.
“The puppies had the same nuclear DNA as Missy, and different mitochondrial DNA, which is what you get from a cloned animal,” Wictum said. “If somebody were trying to, say, sneak in two samples from the same dog or an identical twin and claim that one was a clone’s, there would be no differentiation between the nuclear and mitochondrial DNA.”
Missy 1.0—Mira and MissyToo’s “genetic donor”, as Hawthorne calls her when he’s speaking technically—was his mother’s dog. To date, he said, there are four Missy clones running around, all born between December 2007 and June 2008. Mira lives at Hawthorne’s house in Mill Valley and MissyToo between homes in Mill Valley and San Francisco, both owned by his mother’s boyfriend; clones No. 3 and No. 4 were given away to friends and now live in Phoenix and Boulder, Colorado, respectively (two others were produced but died of parvovirus as newborns).
In July, Hawthorne held a series of online auctions, offering his services to four high bidders who agreed to pay from $130,000-170,000 (about Rs63.3-82.8 lakh) for clones of their dogs (to offset accusations of elitism, Hawthorne also held a search for a fifth, pro bono client). Over the last few weeks, the first three puppies from this group were born in South Korea.
Hawthorne claims Missy’s clones are the world’s first commercially cloned dogs, although RNL Bio, a Korean company with which he is embroiled in a legal dispute over patent rights—and the chance to dominate the dog-cloning market—has also made this claim. Between 2004 and 2006, another company Hawthorne ran cloned cats for a handful of paying customers. Dogs are among the most difficult mammals to clone, scientists say, because their reproductive systems are highly atypical, but Hawthorne thinks that the market is keen.
Hawthorne recalls: “She (Missy) was an amazing dog: superior intellect, incredibly beautiful, obedient, a phenomenal temperament. I especially loved her majestic plume of a tail.” And in the clones, as he put it, “all those qualities are represented.”
As for some of the discrepancies, the clones vary in size and colour, Hawthorne said, primarily because they were born months apart, and none are fully grown yet. “The dark part of their fur starts out reddish-black and gets blacker over time,” he said. “Except on the faces, which start out black and go white within the first year.”
Each clone’s embryo was created by joining Missy’s nuclear DNA with the enucleated (which is to say, DNA-stripped) egg of a different dog. The eggs, with their new DNA from Missy, began to grow and divide. After that, each was carried to term in the uterus of still another dog—a step which, though it has no bearing on the dogs’ genetic makeup, can affect such external traits as the waviness of fur and the up-or-down pointing of the ears.
On his trek around Lake Lagunitas, Hawthorne did his best to explain these matters to his audience, picnicking families who sat transfixed as the two dogs he calls “clisters”—his made-up word for clone sisters—took turns chasing each other.
“Can they clone coconut?” a girl asked. “Sorry, we don’t do vegetables,” Hawthorne said.
A parent clarified: Coconut was the family dog’s name. “Can you clone a three-year-old housebroken dog?” Hawthorne went on gamely. “Learned behaviour, no. But a lot of behaviour is hereditary,” he said.
While he does acknowledge that when it comes to such highly trainable creatures as dogs, it’s pretty difficult to know where nature ends and nurture begins, he said that in the case of his dogs, the ambiguities have nothing on the essential Missy-ness of the clones.
“The girls love to run after each other,” he said pointing at the dogs in the distance. “You see the speed and athleticism? That’s part of what made me want to do this. There are dogs that are faster on a straightaway, but I’d never seen a dog make turns like this until Missy.”
On the day of the hike around the reservoir, Hawthorne, with a reporter as his audience, telephoned Nina and Ed Otto, auction winners in June—they paid $155,000— who were about to learn that they were the proud owners of the project’s first spawn. A clone of Lancelot, their late yellow Labrador, had been born a couple of days earlier in South Korea.
From the courtyard of a Starbucks, he dialled their home in Florida on his cellphone. “Your little Lancelot is here,” Hawthorne informed Mrs Otto.
He followed up with date and time of birth, weight (540g), then emailed two pictures of the newborn as they spoke. “Breathe, breathe,” Hawthorne said. “How does he look?”
“He looks like Neanderthal Man,” Mr Otto called out from the background.
“No, he doesn’t,” his wife said. “I can’t say he looks exactly like our other one,” Mr Otto shouted.
“Yes, he does,” his wife said.
Several days later—the Ottos will not see their new dog until he is 10 weeks old, when they’ll have him flown to the US—Mrs Otto said they were ecstatic about “having the essence of our Lancelot back”.
“We can barely contain ourselves,” said Mr Otto, the chief executive of a medical-equipment company whose father was an early Nascar (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) promoter. “We have eight children and 11 grandchildren and nine dogs. Lancelot was the dog that was most human-like in his behaviour. He died last year—cancer.”
©2009/the new york times