Throughout its short history, animal cloning has been achieved amidst swirling controversy. Any scientific practice that deals with the primary stuff of life – and presumes to alter it as humans see fit – will inevitably strike to the heart of moral and ethical debate and raise questions as fundamental as what we really think life, and its purpose, is. It seems safe to assume that cloning will continue for decades to come; and the controversy that surrounds it now will probably continue unabated, as well.
Scientists who work in the field of genetic engineering – and especially those who conduct cloning experiments – have been accused at times of trying to play God. While we might shudder at the thought of tampering with nature’s designs, however, the fact remains that we humans have already altered the natural balance of the world for the simple reason that we exist in such numbers. We can’t now live comfortably without threatening the stability of other life forms. Consider, also, that humans have a long history of tampering with nature consciously to produce desired results. Look at selective breeding, which has been going on for centuries. Cloning can be seen as a simply different – and quicker – means to the same end.
The continued growth of our own species will probably make it impossible for us to preserve enough natural habitat for other species. What’s more, many countries are too poor to contribute to conservation efforts. Cloning offers the possibility of preserving the genetic stock of species that are endangered. Scientists are working towards a worldwide network of repositories to hold frozen tissue from specimens of endangered species; they hope that this kind of “genetic trust fund” can be drawn upon to reconstitute entire populations of a given species.
The procedure of cloning involves injecting genetic material into an egg that has been sucked of its nucleus, leaving only a sac of gel called cytoplasm. An electrical pulse fuses the introduced cell into the egg, and the early embryo begins to divide. Within a matter of days, it will have grown large enough to implant into a second animal that serves as surrogate mother. In a matter of months, this surrogate mother will give birth to the clone. This technique is still in its infancy, and scientists thus far have succeeded with only a small percentage of their attempts, especially when they involve transplanting the embryo of one species into the uterus of another.
Despite its awkward baby steps, however, cloning may offer a way for scientists to preserve and propagate endangered species. They will also be able to introduce new genes back into the gene pool of species that have few animals remaining. Some claim that they can not only maintain but also possibly increase the overall genetic diversity of endangered populations. If one animal can carry and give birth to a genetic duplicate of an animal of another species, then therein lies our hope, perhaps, of rejuvenating populations that have been ravaged by human activity.
Perhaps a more “moral” or “ethical” solution to the problem of decreasing animal diversity would be to devote all of our energies to preserving natural habitats. But scientists working in genetic engineering – and many other people, for that matter – are beginning to acknowledge that, in many places, that battle has already been lost. Cloning may not represent mankind acting strictly in accord with nature; then again, it may be the sole tool available to us now to use to undo the damage we’ve already done to nature.