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The Science and Ethics of Cloning: A Comprehensive Overview

Introduction

Cloning, a scientific process that creates genetically identical entities (Cibelli et al., 2013), has been a subject of fascination and controversy since its inception. This process, which can occur naturally or artificially, has the potential to revolutionize various fields, including medicine, agriculture, and conservation. However, it also raises profound ethical and societal questions that need to be carefully considered. Delving into the science of cloning, its real-world applications, the ethical implications it presents, and the regulations that govern its practice will provide a well-rounded overview of this controversial topic.


The Science of Cloning

Cloning is a scientific process where genetically identical entities are created. These entities, or clones, share the same genetic material, meaning they are identical in their DNA ( the molecule that carries the genetic instructions for the development, functioning, growth, and reproduction of all living organisms). Cloning can occur naturally or artificially (Cibelli et al., 2013). Natural cloning is a common biological process. For instance, identical twins are natural clones because they share the exact genetic material. Some plants and animals also reproduce asexually, leading to offspring that are genetically identical to the parent organism (Schüring et al., 2011). Artificial cloning, on the other hand, is a process conducted in a laboratory and can be categorized into three types: gene cloning, reproductive cloning, and therapeutic cloning (Dolma et al., 2022).

Figure 1 - "Identical twins" by Joseph Kuhn-Regnier from 'The Works of Hippocrates', 1934

Gene cloning means making multiple, identical copies of a gene. It involves several steps starting with the extraction of the DNA from the organism of interest. This DNA contains the gene that we want to clone and finding and isolating the target gene is often done using restriction enzymes, which are proteins that can cut specific parts of the DNA. Once the gene of interest is isolated, it is inserted into a 'vector'. A vector is another DNA molecule used as a vehicle to artificially carry foreign genetic material into another cell. The most commonly used vectors are plasmids, which are small, circular pieces of DNA found in bacteria. The vector containing the gene of interest is then introduced into a host organism (usually bacteria). This process is known as transformation. The bacteria are then allowed to multiply and as they do so, they replicate (i.e., make copies of) the plasmid and the gene it carries, producing multiple copies of the gene. Colonies of bacteria that have successfully taken up the plasmid and therefore the gene of interest are identified and selected. The plasmid can then be extracted from these bacteria and used for further studies or applications (Dolma et al., 2022). Gene cloning has been instrumental in advancing our understanding of genetic diseases and has paved the way for the development of gene therapies. It's a fundamental technique in molecular biology and biotechnology laboratories around the world (Ditta et al., 1980).


Reproductive cloning is probably what most people think of when they hear the word "cloning" and is a method used to create an animal that has the same DNA as another currently or previously existing animal. This is achieved through a process called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) that starts with a somatic cell (any cell other than sperm or egg cells) being taken from the animal that is to be cloned. This cell contains the complete genetic material of the organism. Next, an egg cell is collected from a female of the same species, and its nucleus, which contains the genetic material, is removed. This leaves a 'blank' egg cell. The nucleus from the somatic cell is then inserted into the 'blank' egg cell. This egg cell now contains the genetic material of the animal to be cloned. The egg cell is then stimulated, usually by an electric shock, to start dividing, as it would in normal reproduction, and once the egg cell has developed into an early-stage embryo, it is implanted into a surrogate mother. If all goes well, the surrogate mother will give birth to an animal that is genetically identical to the animal from which the somatic cell was taken (Cibelli et al., 2013).


Dolly the sheep, cloned in 1996, was the first mammal to be cloned using this technique (Wilmut et al., 1997). This was a breakthrough in the field of cloning, as it showed that it was possible to create an exact copy of an adult animal. Moreover, the creation of Dolly demonstrated that it's possible to take a cell from an adult animal, reset its internal programming, and allow it to grow into a new organism. This process is a central aspect of what we call epigenetics. To put it simply, epigenetics is as a director for our genes - it can instruct genes to act differently without changing the genes themselves. It's all about how genes can be turned on or off without altering the actual DNA sequence. The creation of Dolly was a significant leap in our understanding of how genes operate (Ishino et al., 2013). However, further research on cloned animals such as Dolly has shown us that not all internal programming can be easily reset. This means that even though clones are genetically identical to the donor, they might not be completely identical in their characteristics because of epigenetic differences. These differences can be influenced by various factors such as age, environment, lifestyle, and disease state. This has deepened our understanding of the complexities of gene regulation and the challenges associated with cloning (Ogura et al., 2021).

Figure 2 -"Hello, Dolly" by Linda R. Herzog showing Dolly the sheep, the first cloned animal.

Therapeutic cloning, as the name suggests is designed for patients suffering from disease or illness, and treats them using their somatic cells. It is also achieved through SCNT and has identical steps until the egg cell is stimulated to start dividing. After several days, the egg develops into a blastocyst (an early-stage embryo). The stem cells are then extracted from this blastocyst. These stem cells are unique because they are pluripotent, meaning they can develop into any type of cell in the body. These stem cells can then be used to create cells and tissues that are genetically identical to those of the patient. This means they can be used for transplantation without the risk of being rejected by the patient's immune system (Dolma et al., 2022).


Human Cloning and the Real Applications of Cloning

Reproductive cloning, where a new human being is created, remains a theoretical possibility rather than a scientific reality and is prohibited in many countries due to ethical considerations (Nisbet, 2004), while the cloning of human cells for therapeutic purposes, such as in the treatment of diseases, is generally accepted. Cloning could potentially treat diseases such as Parkinson's and diabetes (Lanza et al., 1999), cancers such as leukaemia (Kelly & Gilliland, 2003), and autoimmune diseases (Bluestone et al., 2015) including psoriasis (Mercurio et al., 2018).

Figure 3 - Therapeutic cloning. A patient's cell and a donor egg (without its nucleus) are fused. This creates a clone from which embryonic stem cells are extracted. These cells are then developed in a lab into genetically identical cells for transplantation. For instance, they could become heart cells for heart disease treatment, pancreatic cells for diabetes, or liver cells for liver repair.

Cloning technology has a wide array of applications across various other fields, contributing significantly to scientific research, agriculture, and conservation efforts. In scientific research, cloning is used to study the function of genes and proteins. For instance, gene cloning allows scientists to produce multiple copies of specific segments of DNA for further study (Brown, 2016). This has been instrumental in our understanding of genetic diseases and the development of gene therapies. In agriculture, cloning is used to reproduce animals with desirable traits, such as high milk production in cows or disease resistance in pigs (Zhou et al., 2018). This can lead to more efficient and sustainable farming practices. Additionally, plant cloning techniques, such as micropropagation, are used to produce high-quality, genetically uniform plants for sustainable use, contributing to conservation efforts. Cloning also plays a role in conservation efforts. For example, the critically endangered medicinal herb Swertia chirayita is currently being conserved through cloning (Kumar & Van Staden, 2016).


Ethical Implications of Cloning

Cloning, particularly in the context of creating genetically identical organisms or humans, has been a topic of intense ethical debate since its inception to the present day. The ability to create an exact genetic replica of an organism, including potentially a human being, raises a multitude of ethical concerns that span across various domains, including individual rights, identity, and societal implications (Harris, 1997; Jiang, 2022). One of the primary ethical concerns associated with cloning is the potential infringement on the individual rights and dignity of the clone. Critics argue that cloning could lead to a reduction in genetic diversity and an infringement on the right to individuality and uniqueness. Furthermore, there is the question of the clone's consent. Since a clone cannot consent to its creation, some argue that it is unethical to create a life that did not choose to exist (Harris, 1997). Another significant ethical concern is the potential for exploitation and commodification of life. There are fears that cloning could lead to a society where life is created and destroyed at will, for purposes such as organ harvesting or creating "designer" children with specific traits. This could lead to a slippery slope where life is no longer valued for its inherent worth but rather for its utility (Hall et al., 2006). The viewpoints on cloning are diverse and often polarised. Some individuals, particularly in the scientific community, argue that cloning has the potential to bring about significant advancements in medicine and agriculture. They believe that with proper regulation, the benefits of cloning could outweigh the ethical concerns. On the other hand, many religious and ethical groups vehemently oppose cloning, citing the sanctity of life and the potential for abuse (Chattopadhyay, 2017).

Figure 4 - Human Cloning art print by Laguna Design. Conceptual computer artwork of a baby in a glass jar reaching out to God, as depicted in Michelangelo's 'Creation of Adam'.

Cloning has been a popular theme in science fiction and pop culture for many years contributing to public understanding and discussion of cloning and shaping perceptions of this scientific concept in the broader cultural context. From literature to film and television, cloning is frequently depicted in a variety of contexts. For instance, in the iconic movie "Jurassic Park," scientists clone dinosaurs from preserved DNA, leading to disastrous consequences (Jurassic Park (1993) - IMDb, n.d.). The film "The Island" (2005) presents a dystopian future where human clones are created for the sole purpose of providing organs for their original counterparts, raising profound ethical questions about the value of life and individual rights (The Island (2005) - IMDb, n.d.). The "Star Wars" franchise also famously features an army of clones, known as the Clone Troopers, created to serve the Galactic Republic (Clone Troopers | StarWars.Com, n.d.). These examples often portray cloning as a technology with the potential for misuse, reflecting societal fears and ethical concerns.


In response to these ethical concerns, several regulations and guidelines have been put in place globally to govern cloning research and applications. For instance, the United Nations Declaration on Human Cloning calls for a ban on all forms of human cloning as they are incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life. Many countries have also enacted their own laws to regulate or ban cloning (Piedrahita & Mir, 2004). While cloning presents significant potential benefits, it also raises profound ethical questions that society must carefully consider. As our scientific capabilities advance, it is crucial that we continue to engage in these ethical discussions and ensure that our regulations evolve to protect individual rights and uphold the value of life.


Conclusion

The science of cloning, while complex and multifaceted, holds immense potential for advancing our understanding of genetics and improving various sectors of society. However, the ethical implications and societal concerns associated with cloning necessitate careful consideration and regulation. As our scientific capabilities continue to evolve, we must engage in ongoing ethical discussions and ensure that our regulations adapt to protect individual rights and uphold the value of life. The future of cloning is likely to be marked by significant advancements, potential benefits, and challenges. As we navigate this future, it is essential that we strike a balance between harnessing the potential of cloning and addressing the ethical concerns it raises.

Bibliographical References

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