Think of yourself – all that you are and all that you’ll ever be. Think of how frizzy your hair gets, how your knee twinges when it rains, how your pinky is nearly as long as your ring finger. All the things that make you, you, so wonderfully unique and utterly human.
Now imagine another person, the same as you, down to the waves in your fingerprint. Every curl in their hair matches yours, but they have literally none of the thoughts that you do.
Do you feel unsettled? Excited? Indifferent?
Human cloning has not yet been fully explored, partially because people can’t quite make up their mind about clones. In addition, though the ethics of cloning has been a topic of debate for well over 20 years, the scientific community has not reached a consensus regarding the morality of cloning.
However, there is no doubt that cloning is possible. Not only do clones occur naturally, but Dolly, the sheep, was created by cloning in the year 1996. Clones of Rhesus monkeys, mice, cows, goats, and many other animals soon followed. Making human clones is the next obvious step. However, before addressing the implications of human cloning, let’s talk about what cloning actually is.
What is cloning?
In simple words, a clone is an exact copy of an organism. The clone is genetically identical to its counterpart.
In nature, asexual reproduction gives rise to clones. For example, bacteria undergo binary fission, a phenomenon in which a parent cell duplicates its genetic material and splits in two such that each daughter cell receives one copy. As a result, the daughter cells are identical to each other and the parent.
In humans, a fertilised egg may split in the womb, causing the growth of identical twins. These twins are clones of each other but not of either parent.
Cloned organisms don’t necessarily have to look identical. The first cloned cat, Cc, looked very different from her mother. Both Cc and the mother have the same genetic makeup, but the colour and pattern of cat coats are not due to only genetic factors. Every cell of a female cat has two X chromosomes. The pattern of inactivation of these choromosomes determines the appearance of the coat. There is no order in which the genes become inactive; it seemingly happens at random. This allows for the possibility of variation in coat.
Artificial cloning is of three types – gene, reproductive, and therapeutic. Gene cloning aims to replicate copies of DNA segments. Therapeutic cloning focuses on producing embryonic totipotent stem cells—reproductive cloning results in copies of whole animals.
Has a human been cloned in the past?
Human cloning, as of now, appears to have never been done before. In 1998, South Korean scientists claimed to have successfully cloned a human embryo. However, this claim could not be verified due to interruption at an early stage of the experiment.
In 2002, a company called Clonaid claimed to have created the first human clone. Raelians, a religious sect that believes that human life has extraterrestrial origins, founded the company. However, despite requests from the scientific community, Clonaid did not produce any evidence attesting to the claim.
Both independent research groups and biotechnology firms practice animal cloning. However, most companies keep their research data very private, so the public doesn’t know much about the status of their projects. Some prominent cloning firms are Nexia Biotechnologies, ProLinia, Athens GA, and Infigen.
How are humans cloned?
There are two ways to generate a clone — Artificial Embryo Twinning and Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer.
Artificial Embryo Twinning is a relatively low-tech method of creating a clone. This technique aims to replicate the natural process of the formation of twins. A very early embryo splits into two or more parts under an external influence. Each portion, upon implantation and growth in the womb, develops into a new individual.
Scottish scientists pioneered Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer in 1996. They were the first to use this method and created the famous sheep, Dolly.
SCNT is a two-step process. First, the nucleus (organelle which contains DNA) is removed from egg cells. Next, an adult somatic cell (any cell not including egg and sperm) is transferred into the enucleated egg cell. An electric current is passed through the cells to cement them nucleus and cell together. This system mimics an embryo when present in uterine conditions. It can develop in a surrogate mother to form a new individual.
Theoretically, SCNT extends to human cloning as well. Practically, the complication is due to primate-specific proteins known as “spindle proteins”. They play an important role in cell division. These proteins are present very close to the chromosomes in the egg cell. This implies that the removal of the nucleus causes the removal of spindle proteins. As a result, the system will not be able to divide and grow as it would in the case of a non-primate egg cell.
Advantages of human cloning
- Treatment of cardiovascular diseases: About 31% of global deaths is due to cardiovascular diseases. Scientists believe that heart diseases can be treated by cloning healthy cells and injecting them into the damaged area of the heart.
- Elimination of congenital disorders: Congenital disabilities can be detected from the analysis of the child’s genome when in the womb itself. Scientists can clone a tissue sample and manipulate the genes to remove the defects. When implanted in the mother, the altered tissue develops into a perfectly healthy baby.
- Prolonged life: Newly cloned tissue can regularly replace old, damaged tissue. If done periodically, the average lifespan of a human increases dramatically.
- Organ donations: Organ transplantation comes with the risk of graft rejection. Cloning can eliminate the body’s natural response to a foreign element as it uses an identical genotype.
A common misconception is that great personalites of the past can be brought back by cloning. Cloning only results in identical genes. The mind and thoughts of a person are a result of his education, experiences, lifestyle. Even if Albert Einstein was cloned, there is no guarantee that the clone would be a genius or at the very least, extremely smart. Memories cannot be duplicated by cloning.
Disadvantages of human cloning
- Unpromising success rates: 90% of human cloning attempts have been deemed as a failure. Even in animal cloning, there is only about a 3% success rate. These statistics may improve in the future, but it is presently not viable to risk human lives.
- Identity and Individuality issues: Part of the human experience is knowing that there is nobody else in the world quite like you. The existence of an identical copy would diminish this sense of individuality. Moreover, the justice system may undergo radical changes to oversee the citizenship, ownership, and social identity of cloned humans.
- United Nations Declaration: UNESCO declared that “all forms of human cloning since they are incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life”. This statement received ambivalent support from member countries due to its ambiguous phrasing. In 2008, UNESCO set up an International Bioethics Committee.
- Religious debate: The idea of human cloning is repulsive to many cultures who believe that scientists are attempting to “play God”.
The field of human cloning holds significant potential. Perhaps one day, society and science will have progressed enough to create and integrate clones in a risk-free environment, but it is doubtful that we will see it happen any time soon.