AIn the photos, Marlon, Garlic and Marley look like ordinary pets: a lively white bulldog, a stately cat and a honey-colored dog with floppy ears. But behind their wide eyes is a lot of money and technology. Like more than a thousand dogs and cats around the world, the three were cloned in the name of their owners.
Three well-known companies in the sector brought Marlon, Garlic and Marley’s doppelgängers to life: Sooam Biotech Research Foundation in South Korea, Sinogene in China and Viagen in the USA. Commercial cloning of animals is not permitted in Germany. The procedure is considered an animal experiment and therefore, according to the Animal Welfare Act, can only be carried out for specific purposes, such as research, and only with the approval of the responsible authorities.
But pet owners in Germany have also had four-legged friends cloned by foreign companies. Bulldog Marlon caused controversy as the first German clone dog in 2018. Marlon first died from an anesthetic during a routine operation at the age of four. To his owners, Sven and Simone J. from Saxony, he was like a member of the family and his death came as a shock, they said at the time.
For families like them, cloning companies offer the hope of having their animal companions again, even if they are dead. According to their websites, they can pay between 50,000 and 100,000 US dollars (that is, up to 90,000 euros). “A cloned dog is simply a genetic twin of your dog, born later,” says the Viagen website. Sooam promotes dog cloning under the title “Not You But You”. Cats and horses can also be duplicated, according to the company’s website.
Anyone who decides to do this must act quickly after the animal’s death. Owners have a maximum of five days to provide companies with the necessary fabric samples. The company’s information material states that the animal’s carcass must be chilled, but never frozen. According to “Not You But You”, the “reunion” will take place within five months.
When asked, Claudia Klein, head of the Institute of Livestock Genetics at the Friedrich Loeffler Institute, explains how the cloning process works in the laboratory. First of all, eggs are needed, which scientists obtain for research purposes, for example in slaughterhouses, from unnecessary ovaries.
Eggs mature in the laboratory for 24 hours because they are immature in the ovaries. “This means that the DNA is in the cell like a ball of unraveled wool. After 24 hours, that shredded ball of yarn is a beautifully rolled ball of yarn. This is the essence”, explains the veterinarian.
For the next step you will need very good fine motor skills and a microscope with two joysticks. “It’s a bit like playing with a computer,” says Klein, describing the next steps: “With the left joystick you guide a pipette, which basically contains the egg, and with the right joystick you move a needle. This removes the nucleus because it contains the genetic material from the slaughterhouse animal, which we don’t want.” In the end you have an eviscerated egg.
A cell from the donor animal that will be cloned enters this now empty egg. Most often these are connective tissue cells, for example, skin. In the case of the famous clone sheep Dolly, this came from the udder. The problem is that the cell used is highly specialized, says Klein: “A skin cell like this is not an embryo.” an embryo can develop. This rarely works.
Cloning is “inefficient”
“In general, cloning is inefficient”, explains the expert. The success rate is two to three percent. This means that two to three viable clones develop from 100 prepared eggs.
The part of the body where the donor cells come from doesn’t have much influence on development, says Klein. After the eggs have been observed for a few days and the embryos have developed, they can be transferred to surrogate mothers who will carry the clone babies.
“The foster animals carrying the cloned animals suffer due to the administration of hormones and often very difficult births,” writes the German Animal Welfare Association on its website. The association categorically rejects cloning and calls for a general ban, including for scientific purposes.
Veterinarian Klein confirms that animals pregnant with clones have a higher rate of losses. There may be anomalies, for example in the placenta, and anomalies such as the so-called large offspring syndrome in cattle. The offspring are then extraordinarily large.
Farm animals are also cloned
Not only pets, but also farmed animals such as cattle are cloned all over the world, for example, so that they can produce a lot of milk. For around 20 years there have also been duplicates of high-performance horses for equestrian or polo. Researchers are also working to revive extinct species through clones.
If the cloning process works, the newborn animal will have the same nuclear DNA as the ancient animal, explains Klein. In principle, comparable to an identical twin – an identical copy, but with limitations: in addition to the DNA of the cell nucleus, each egg also contains mitochondrial genetic material. Mitochondria are called organelles that provide cells with energy.
They have their own genetic material, although to a lesser extent than the cell nucleus. These mitochondrial genes are inherited through the maternal line – in the plasma of an egg. And in this genetic information, cloned animals differ from the origin of their cell nucleus.
Another factor that does not make animals 100% equal is called epigenetics, says Klein. This term refers to a biochemical form of regulation that determines how active genes are. For example, certain DNA characteristics can develop depending on environmental conditions. Skin patterns can also vary: the old Marlon had a brown patch on his head, while his clone Marlon 2 had it slipping over his eye.
“Cells can spread randomly during development. It’s like making a cake and sprinkling chocolate sprinkles on top. If you do this with two cakes, both cakes will have chocolate sprinkles, but they will be arranged a little differently,” explains Klein.
It is difficult to answer whether character traits or certain performance characteristics are also transferred during cloning. “It always depends on the financing,” says Klein. There are no large-scale studies on this yet.
The German Animal Welfare Association calls pet cloning an “expensive illusion” because the character is not recreated. The owners of the Marlon, Garlic and Marley clones see this differently. “That’s the right feeling and that’s my garlic. He’s back!”, says the company Sinogene to its satisfied clientele, whose stories are presented on the website.
The “parents of Marlon, Germany’s first clone dog” have even created a homepage on which they offer to put people whose dog has died in touch with Sooam. And to support the preparation of the cloning process. They also answer frequently asked questions about whether they would do it again: “We ourselves had our doubts at first, but our experience has taught us otherwise and we would do it exactly the same way, over and over again.”
No matter how similar the animals may end up being, there’s no need to work on relationships with the new animal, notes psychologist and human-animal relations researcher Andrea Beetz. The new animal, in turn, is shaped by the current social environment – not what the old animal had years ago.
Relationship between humans and animals
“It doesn’t do the new animal justice if I always compare it to the old animal and have certain expectations,” says Beetz, who teaches healing education at IU International University. This is not good for the human-animal relationship. In general, however, it would be easier to get involved with a similar animal than one with completely different characteristics.
Instead of cloning your deceased pet, Beetz recommends allowing the grieving process to take place. Although this may take a few months, from a psychological point of view everything is fine. Beetz says, “We are always faced with loss and change in life. With pets, it’s actually an opportunity to handle them and control them.”