Cloned cows: little has changed since the panic over Dolly the sheep

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Cloning still triggers fear in the public, as the recent food furore shows. But the genetic process has powerful uses for good, writes Roger Highfield.

The cloned food furore has been a timely reminder of how, even when we recognise a big idea, no one can quite predict its consequences. It is 13 years since the breakthrough that made it possible to clone adult animals was announced by a team at the Roslin Institute, near Edinburgh. Called nuclear transfer, it offered a way to wind back cellular time. The team used it to take the mammary cell of an adult sheep and turn it into an embryo, which then grew into a clone of the sheep. The clone was called Dolly.

Headlines reflected the shockwaves her birth sent out: they raised “dreaded possibilities” such as “the abolition of man”. One writer described how Dolly “looks at you with those intense red eyes – eyes full of hate”.

I went to Edinburgh to meet the red-eyed menace, and found an affable, plump sheep. A few years on, I wrote a book about the scientist who led the cloning effort, Sir Ian Wilmut, who is no Dr Frankenstein, but an ordinary bloke with a beard.

Little has changed since then. Even though there are plenty of clones around us (identical twins, bananas, potatoes, bacteria) the word still triggers knee-jerk fear.

The current palaver concerns the use of nuclear transfer to copy endangered species and elite breeds, along with pets. Copies have been made of wildcats, wild ox, a mouflon (an endangered species of sheep), racing horses, mules and camels.

Today, US companies clone cattle, horses and pigs for breeding on farms. It was never likely that consumers would find themselves eating pork chops made from cloned pigs, because the process is so inefficient and expensive. Instead, the goal has been to clone prize animals, and breed from them conventionally....

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