ON THURSDAY, 16 years ago, the first mammal successfully cloned from an adult cell was born at the Roslin Institute in Scotland. Scientists used a mammary cell. So, naturally, they called the lamb Dolly. At age six, after having been diagnosed with arthritis in her hind legs a year earlier, Dolly developed lung disease and was put down. She's now stuffed and displayed at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
News of Dolly's birth created a storm of controversy. Advocates of cloning argued the technology could lead to major advances in medicine. Others welcomed it as a future means of preserving endangered species. Cynics and worrywarts, however, proclaimed the new technology dangerous and unethical - particularly where they imagined it might lead to human cloning. So far, supporters of the technology have come out ahead: cloning is downright useful.
Earlier this year, scientists from the Roslin Institute used cells from the skin of people suffering from bipolar depression, schizophrenia and other mental illness to create brain tissue. Essentially, they're building new brains on which to test drugs developed to treat the conditions with no risk to patients. Researchers plan to create hearts, livers and other organs (which are difficult to biopsy) by similar means.
Another recent cloning success story in the medical field is that of three-year-old Isabella "Pippie" Kruger and the grafting of 41 sheets of skin to her body in Garden City Hospital in Joburg. Pippie's new skin was cloned from healthy cells from her own epidermis, tiny bits of which were protected from the fire by her nappy. The cloning took place in the Genzyme Laboratory in Boston, US, where doctors used mouse cells as scaffolding on which to grow the new skin.
But progress in cloning isn't limited to medicine. Scientists in South Korea have cloned animals such as cats, cows, dogs, pigs and wolves. Now, in a joint venture with Russian researchers, they're hoping to clone the woolly mammoth.
The idea is to create embryos from the DNA taken from the remains of a mammoth preserved in the permafrost of Siberia. They'll then replace the nuclei of elephant egg cells with the newly created cells. An elephant cow will be the surrogate for the mammoth.
Meanwhile, in Britain, horse breeder Julia Harrison Lee sparked debate recently by cloning her star show jumper, Romulus 16 (stable name, Gerry) when he retired. Gerry competed in the national squad for six years and was short-listed for the Sydney Olympics. He was gelded, but thanks to cloning, there's a Mini-Gerry. (Show jumping's governing body, the Fédération Equestre Internationale, only gave the go-ahead for clones to compete at professional level in June, so we have yet to see if Mini-Gerry is a maxi-jumper like his donor/dad.)
So, all is good in the land of the clone and detractors need worry no more? Perhaps. But don't forget, scientists only revealed the existence of Dolly months after her birth. So who is to say that the colleague you find so foolish isn't really Bozo the clone?