Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Restoring a Pet to Life through Cloning

Perhaps I should have posted this on my 'political' page but it deals with questions of immortality and thus is a proper topic for this site.

Recently, a firm named 'BioArts' cloned a deceased dog named Missy, the pet of an elderly billionaire named John Sperling.

An article in 'The Independent' discussed the affair in some detail and most of the information that follows is taken from that article. The dog was a mix, three-quarters Border Collie and one quarter Siberian Husky and John Sperling was utterly devoted to his pet. When she died, the octogenarian invested millions into research to help restore deceased pets to the owners who loved them.

The cloning of Missy was successful. The Autumn 2008 issue of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine News reported Missy’s clones to be legitimate. From the report:
[T]he school’s experts were the ones who confirmed that the animals were indeed clones of Missy, a dog that died in 2002. The [Veterinary Genetics Laboratory’s] parentage testing laboratory used a canine-specific panel of 24 DNA markers to confirm that Missy’s nuclear DNA was present in each of the clones . . . Missy’s mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is another factor.'

The tragedy here is that a clone is not identical to the original except in genetical terms. Its appearance, behaviour and temperament can be completely different. The environment in the uterus, nutrition before and subsequent to birth as well as other factors in life will shape the animal's being, personality and character.

Missy's clones may be less like Missy than any puppies she might have had during her own life. We would love to believe that it is possible to restore life to the dead, but the reality is a little more complex.

It is a testament to humanity's profound love for animals that people are willing to pay extraordinary sums to clone their pets, but a successful cloning does not bring a deceased pet back to life.

Buddhists believe that the soul of the deceased can inhabit a new form. Perhaps it is more likely that a deceased pet would return in the body of a newborn animal somewhere on earth than a scientific clone would have any spiritual link to its DNA 'benefactor'.

The loss of a beloved pet can be a pain that endures for years, but cloning, however fascinating and potentially valuable for other reasons, apparently is not a solution in terms of reuniting an owner with his/her deceased pet.

I thought of another idea, though. In Second Life, I have a 'virtual' cat whom I named after one of my own pets. He is amazingly responsive for a computer construct but does not really resemble any of my real cats. Even so, he was a comfort to me after my cat died.

I can envision a far more advanced programme, though, that would restore a deceased pet to an owner to some extent.

What if people could capture the appearance, behaviour, voice and movements of a pet while he/she still lived and then imbue a computer-generated animal with all of these characteristics? They do it all the time in films, after all! One then could continue to interact with the pet even after death in a form that would be far more satisfying than a simple photograph. It would be a form of interactive memory.

It would not 'restore' the pet to life, but it would represent a form of immortality for the pet in the same way that a portrait does. It could not take the place of a living, breathing animal, of course, but I would be willing to wager that almost every pet lover would opt to 'preserve' the memories of their pets in this way if they could!

Finally, even if the clone of an animal were identical to its original in every way, I am not certain it is better to clone a beloved pet than to find a new animal to love. So many animals in the world need our love. Perhaps we can honour our beloved pets more after their death by giving our love to another animal who needs it.

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