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The inside story behind the costly quest to clone dogs reveals at least as much about human nature as it does about copying man's best friend.
"It says a lot more about the human condition, actually," Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Woestendiek, author of the book "Dog, Inc.," told me this week. Woestendiek became involved in the saga back in 2005, when he was covering the pet beat for the Baltimore Sun. That was the year that marked the birth of the world's first cloned dog, Snuppy, in South Korea.
During the years that followed, Woestendiek became more engrossed in the economics and the emotions that drove the international efforts to create (and, not incidentally, market) cloned pets. When the commercial pet-cloning market notched its first sale in 2008, the South Koreans set a list price of $150,000. "It's $100,000 now, and they've said all along that as they get better at it, the price will keep dropping," Woestendiek said. "Maybe it'll be $25,000 someday. But it'll still be a lot."
The main characters in "Dog, Inc." include scientists and entrepreneurs as well as pet lovers who scraped together the cash to buy carbon copies of their animal companions. And these folks aren't mere puppy dogs. There's a lot of bite to this tale:
- The top researchers behind the dog-cloning experiments, Woo-Suk Hwang and Lee Byeong-chun, got into the field knowing that there was money to be made — and for a time they were involved in competing ventures. However, both of them had to deal with disgrace and criminal charges related to South Korea's stem-cell scandal. Ultimately, Hwang and Lee both distanced themselves from the business side of pet cloning.
- Maverick billionaire John Sperling put an estimated $20 million into dog-cloning research, specifically to clone Missy, the mixed-breed dog owned by his longtime friend and lover, Joan Hawthorne. Hawthorne's son Lou got "Project Missyplicity" started with the aid of Texas A&M researchers. The project led to the first cloned cat in 2001, but Texas A&M withdrew from the race to clone dogs. In the end, Missy's clones were produced not by Texas A&M, but by Hwang's team in Korea.
- The first paying customer for a cloned dog, Bernann McKinney, received a $100,000 discount from RNL Bio, the South Korean company that was headed up by Lee Byeong-chun. She still had to arrange for the sale of family property to help pay for having her dear, departed pit bull, Booger, cloned from tissue samples. McKinney benefited from a Booger bonanza: five genetically identical clones that landed her on network TV. But it wasn't long before her past caught up with her. Follow-up reports focused on a sex-abduction scandal from the 1970s as well as burglary charges from 2004.
Woestendiek, who watched Hwang at work in Seoul as part of his research for the book, provides ample evidence that cloning isn't the smooth, high-tech operation some folks might think it is. The failures greatly outnumber the successes. To produce Snuppy, for example, eggs had to be extracted from about 115 dogs. More than 1,000 cloned embryos were implanted into 123 dogs — but only three pregnancies resulted, and Snuppy was the only cloned offspring that lived more than a few weeks.
Identical genes, but not the same
Some folks might also think cloned animals are identical copies of the original cell donor, but "Dogs, Inc." dispels that myth as well. Woestendiek tells how the birth of the first cloned cat, CC (for "Carbon Copy"), angered Lou Hawthorne because the cloned kitty didn't look anything like its genetic twin. (The reason is a phenomenon known as X-linked inactivation.) Even if the animals look the same, they don't act the same, as Joan Hawthorne found out when she finally took delivery of a Missy clone, MissyTwo.
"They're not at all alike," she was quoted as saying. "Missy was robust and completely calm. Missy wouldn't come through my home and knock over every wine glass."
Woestendiek writes that "the flabbergasting fact was — after 11 years of research on two continents; after all the trials and errors; after all the testing, harvesting, micromanipulating, zapping, implanting and legal wrangling; after an estimated $20 million of her friend's money was poured into creating a clone of Missy — Joan Hawthorne didn't want the dog."
That outcome carries a lesson for anyone who might be contemplating human cloning — or might believe that cloning a human would create an eerie doppleganger or a soulless robot. In fact, the procedure would merely create a time-delayed twin who would lead his or her own life.
"A lot of people have the impression that if you clone someone or something, it's the same being back again — which is probably the result of too many science-fiction movies," Woestendiek said.
'Close to folly'
There's deep irony in the fact that some people have spent tens of thousands of dollars in hopes of re-creating one special dog, while thousands of other dogs are being put to death every day in America. And that irony isn't lost on Woestendiek. After spending five years researching a book on the subject, Woestendiek has come to the conclusion that pet cloning is not that hot of an idea.
"You're sort of capitalizing on people during a time of grief,," he told me. "Most often, the whole quest to clone a dog, and the subsequent marketing, is pretty close to folly, in my opinion. But I tried not to be too opinionated in the book."
The venture that Sperling's money created, Genetic Savings & Clone, went out of business four years ago. Today, the South Korean company RNL Bio is the only outfit offering to clone dogs for a price. RNL says it plans to be cloning 500 dogs a year by 2012, but Woestendiek wonders just how realistic that projection will prove to be.
"It hasn't grown by the leaps and bounds that they anticipated, partly because cloning's kind of trial and error, not an automatic thing," he said. "I don't know whether it will become a huge thing. I doubt it. It'll be a thing that rich people do."
It's definitely not a thing Woestendiek plans to do, even though he says his dog Ace is "totally cloneworthy."
"Doubling, tripling or quadrupling my dog would be an insult to his uniqueness," he explained in a Q&A provided by his publisher. "And it would lead to such high expectations for the copies that they could probably never live up to it."
More about the science of dogs:
- How science measures up cats and dogs
- Dogs sneak food when we're not looking
- Dogs were dumbed down by domestication
- Size matters when it comes to canine smarts
- Still more pet health coverage from msnbc.com