Action Potential

Pet sematary

A woman in the US has decided that she loved her pit bull (named Booger) so much, that having him all over again is definitely worth the $150,000 price tag. I saw this story in the BBC, reporting how a Korean company, RNL Bio, has taken its initial order for pet dog cloning, the first such venture of commercial scientific canine cloning (a pet cat was first cloned in 2004). The lead scientist at RNL Bio, Dr Lee Byeong-chun, had previously worked with disgraced stem cell scientist Dr Hwang Woo-suk, whose fraudulent publications created quite a stir (we referred to that scandal on Action potential here.)

The client, Bernann McKunney, gave RNL Bio ear tissue from “Booger”, preserved by an American biotech firm before the dog died 18 months ago. Ms. McKunney had become quite devoted to her dog after she claimed it saved her life, coming to her aid while she was being attacked by another dog, an encounter that cost her an arm. For those of you wishing you had the six figures required to re-create your close canine companion, never fear, RNL Bio’s marketing director, Cho Seong-ryul believes that the cloning costs should come down to be under $50,000, as the industry begins to “take-off”.

These pet cloning ventures are fun tests of nature vs. nurture. Although subjective, who better to determine whether the personality, physical characteristics, and other identifying traits of a cloned organism are the same as those of the original than the doting owner? Although I think that paying that kind of money for a dog is a bit ridiculous, I am quite intrigued by what the results will bring. Dogs are very interactive creatures, providing a rich and broad spectrum of repeatable behaviors that can easily be assessed by humans. Although Dolly the sheep was indeed a clone, it must have been a bit of a challenge to determine whether she had he same demeanor as her genetically-identical donor (sister? mother? What was the verdict on that one??) No offense to Dr. Wilmut and his team, but I think that humans have a bit harder time dissecting complicated sheep behaviors as compared to what we are able to observe in dogs. And as any cat owner will attest, feline behavior is erratic, at best, making it difficult to determine personality differences. Comparing the personalities of Booger and “Booger II” will, at least. provide for some interesting discussion fodder.

Even more interesting, a better opportunity to quantify behavior and provide a more objective assessment of original/clone similarity could lie with RNL Bio’s other potential clients. Besides cloning loved pets that families cannot live without, the South Korean firm is also going after a different market: those employing dogs for various complicated tasks. Whether as a seeing-eye dog, a drug-sniffer, or a search-and-rescue team member, dogs can learn to complete challenging jobs with discipline and precision. The training process provides many opportunities to evaluate trainee performance, providing the trainers with feedback tracking an individual’s progress, and predict which animals are most likely to rise to an elite level. These evaluations involve quantifiable tests. So now we have a decent experiment here. We can compare the performance numbers of the original and the cloned beasts, in an attempt to determine how much of the ability to learn and absorb these tasks is genetic.

But until RNL Bio lands a windfall contract from some major guide dog farm, I’ll have to settle for assessing Ms. McKunney’s satisfaction with her new Booger.