Monkeying around with cloning
Headlines are buzzing around the world about the ‘first monkey clones’.1 These were the identical long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis) named Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua, born two weeks apart in a Chinese laboratory, in research led by Qiang Sun of the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Neuroscience.2
What is a clone?
The word ‘clone’ was invented by the evolutionist J.B.S. Haldane, from Greek κλών/klōn, meaning ‘twig’. A clone is defined as a genetically identical copy of an organism produced by asexual reproduction. For example, identical twins are natural clones, produced when a fertilized egg (zygote) divides in two. Note that the identicality is confined to genetics—human identical twins have different fingerprints and personalities.
This means that in one sense, these two monkey babies are not really the first monkey clones. In 2000, headlines proclaimed that a rhesus monkey had been produced by cloning. However, this was just artificial twinning—see New monkey clone? What really happened and what should creationists think?
But what most people think by ‘clone’ is a genetic copy of an adult, or at least an organism developed past the early embryonic stage. Such a clone would be made from the genes in a somatic cell (Greek: σὠμα/soma = body) from the organism.
Dolly the sheep clone
That is, like the famous Dolly (5 July 1996 – 14 February 2003), the cloned sheep. As we discussed at the time, she was produced by removing the nucleus from a cell from the mammary gland of one Finn Dorset ewe, then transferring it to an oocyte, or immature unfertilized egg cell, of a different sheep, after the cell’s own nucleus was removed. The process is called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT).
This fertilized egg was stimulated with an electric shock to stimulate it to divide. It then grew in the womb of a third ewe, a surrogate mother. So, Dolly was born, who was genetically identical to the ewe the nucleus came from—but clearly different from her surrogate mother who was a Scottish Blackface sheep.3
Note that we need not only the DNA but the nucleus of the animal to be cloned, and a viable egg cell in which to implant the nucleus. And under current technology, we need a womb as well for the maturation. So although dinosaur DNA fragments have been detected, which would have been impossible if they were really 68 million years old, there is no way that a dinosaur could be cloned from them, contra Jurassic Park/World.
Actually, Dolly was not a total genetic copy, because the cell’s little powerhouses, the mitochondria that contain the ATP synthase motors, have their own DNA. So she was a nuclear clone only—not a mitochondrial clone.
In fact, Dolly’s DNA was so much like the adult that it even had shorter telomeres, ‘caps’ at the end of DNA molecules that protect the coding regions from damage (from τέλος, telos = ‘ end’ and μέρος, merοs = ‘part’; see Living for 900 years: The countdown to death). At the time, this was thought to be responsible for her premature death, about half the normal lifespan for that breed (see ‘Dolly’ is no babe).
However, this conclusion was premature, based on only one experiment. In fact, Dolly was euthanized because she had a type of contagious lung cancer affecting sheep called ovine pulmonary adenocarcinoma, caused by the Jaagsiekte sheep retrovirus (JSRV). This is readily spread by sheep kept indoors, so it’s better for sheep to be kept outside (even in Bethlehem in December). In fact, four other sheep cloned from the same cell line as Dolly—named Debbie, Denise, Dianna, and Daisy, and born in 2007—were kept outside. Even when they reached 9 years old, much older than Dolly who didn’t make it to 7, they were quite healthy for their sheep age. None had diabetes or hypertension, although one had arthritis but not bad enough to cripple her. So the researchers argued that there is probably some chromosomal renewal during the reprogramming:
On initial inspection, our data in sheep may appear at odds with the health status of Dolly and predictions of premature ageing, which were based on terminal restriction fragment analyses of her genomic DNA20. While telomere length was reduced in SCNT clones relative to age-matched controls in that and subsequent studies in sheep, these effects did not manifest following SCNT in cattle. Further inconsistent reports of shorter telomeres in cloned offspring from other species have led to the consensus that telomere length is generally restored during nuclear reprogramming. The extent of telomere restoration in turn is dictated by intricate epigenetic alterations to telomeric and sub-telomeric chromatin, variation in which could explain discrepancies between species and donor cell types within species. It follows that the relationship between telomere length, health and longevity in multicellular organisms is complex and, for our current cohort of animals, awaits organ-specific cell enrichment and analysis following post-mortem at a future date.4
The researchers euthanized them in 2017, because 10 years is very old for a sheep, and they said they had proved their point that a clone can live a normal lifespan.5 However, we would still expect some greater genetic entropy effects from the mutations accumulated during the life of the animal that was cloned, if this process were repeated over many generations.
The new monkey clones
These were made using the same SCNT process used to make Dolly and her ‘identical twin’ clones. This is actually very hard to do—it took 277 tries to clone Dolly the sheep. So these researchers tried to improve their chances after the transfer by injecting the cell with biomolecules to help the host egg cell reprogram the injected nucleus, so that the embryo can develop.
The researchers tried two sources of donor cell. One was from cumulus cells from an adult monkey—these are cells in a layer surrounding the immature egg cell, a layer that the sperm must penetrate to fertilize the egg. Out of the 181 implanted into 42 monkey surrogate mothers, there were only 17 live fetuses in 12 mothers. Only two of those resulted in live births, and the babies died shortly after that. So this seems to be a dead end, and also provides strong reasons why such methods should never be attempted on human fetuses due to the huge waste-bin of human life that would ensue.
The other source was fetal fibroblast cells. These are cells that generate the material holding body tissues together. 79 of these were implanted into 21 surrogates. Two resulted in healthy live babies, delivered by caesarean section.
In all the babies, as expected, they inherited the nuclear DNA from the nucleus that was transplanted to the egg
What about human clones?
That’s what most people want to know. First, a reminder that identical twin humans are natural human clones. But what about artificial human cloning?
We should remember the Dominion Mandate of Genesis 1:28—God gave man dominion over the rest of creation, including animals. God created humans separately, in His image and likeness, unlike the animal kingdom (Genesis 1:26–27). The reasoning for the production of these ‘monkey clones’ was to aid in combatting human diseases on the premise that many apes are similar to humans in terms of the diseases or ailments they suffer. That in itself is not a bad thing. But unfortunately doing such science without this biblical mandate inevitably leads to similar experimentation on humans. That is, ‘nothing is closer than another human, so why not experiment on or clone humans?’ This stems from an evolutionary view that humans are just evolved animals, particularly while still in the womb, under the false premise that they are not yet fully human. In the same way we argued that using adult human stem cells to help cure diseases is good, but using unborn humans for spare parts which results in their destruction is immoral, because it results in the murder of the unborn.
Humans were never told to have dominion over other humans, nor manipulate them. Humans should not be experimented on without their consent. Many abuses of humanity throughout history are the result of man outstepping his dominion mandate to oppress other humans, e.g. slavery, prenatal baby butchery (abortion), and euthanasia, and the genocide inflicted during the Holocaust and the man-made famine in Ukraine under Stalin called the Holodomor (Голодомо́р, ‘murder by starvation’).
The Dominion Mandate implies that sheep and monkey cloning are biblically allowable. Whether it’s wise is another matter. Since man is fallen, there is always the possibility that research can be abused. So, careful checks and balances are required. But this is true of many fields of research, not just cloning and other genetic modification. But the Bible also provides the example of Christ curing diseases and disabilities, i.e. alleviating the effects of the curse. So if animal cloning helps to cure human diseases, then it could be a good thing.
Human cloning is a completely different matter. Since it is now a scientific fact that life begins at fertilization or conception, any fertilized human egg is a new tiny human. So an artificial process that generates new human beings knowing that most will be destroyed is deeply immoral. One report of the monkey clones states:
Prof Robin Lovell-Badge of The Francis Crick Institute, London, said the technique used to clone Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua remains “a very inefficient and hazardous procedure.”
“The work in this paper is not a stepping-stone to establishing methods for obtaining live born human clones,” he said.1
And the Roslin Institute of the University of Edinburgh, where Dolly was clones, notes the following:
What are the risks associated with cloning?
Cloned embryos are more likely to be lost during pregnancy than normal embryos, which accounts for the low success rate of cloning. Large Offspring Syndrome (LOS) can also affect some cloned animals. Animals with LOS have growth defects and are considerably larger at birth than animals resulting from natural matings. LOS is more often found in cloned animals from livestock species, such as sheep, than in other cloned animals.
These abnormalities may be caused by the conditions used to grow the cells and embryos in the lab, which might be improved by future research.6
It’s even worse if clones were destroyed deliberately. Thus cloning humans to harvest organs compatible with a donor, as per the American science fiction-thriller movie The Island (2005), is an abomination—fortunately, the movie portrayed it as such.
But if a human clone were born, it would be a real human, made in God’s image and likeness, so the same rights and responsibilities as anyone else. He or she would not necessarily have the same personality of his or her donor. E.g. a Fidel Castro clone would not necessarily become an atheistic communist mass murderer; instead he could well grow up to be a Christian, free-market capitalist philanthropist.
And any clone would be a descendant of “the first man, Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45), so would inherit Adam’s sin nature. But this clone would also be related to Jesus Christ, “the last Adam”, another descendant of Adam (Luke 3:23–38), who could thus be his Kinsman-Redeemer (Isaiah 59:20) and Saviour. So clones would also need the Gospel, which is predicated on Creation and the Fall.
References and notes
- Briggs, H., First monkey clones created in Chinese laboratory, BBC News, 24 January 2018. Return to text.
- Zhen Liu, Yijun Cai, Yan Wang, Yanhong Nie, Chenchen Zhang, Yuting Xu, Xiaotong Zhang, Yong Lu, Zhanyang Wang, Muming Poo, and Qiang Sun, Cloning of macaque monkeys by somatic cell nuclear transfer, Cell 172:1–7, 8 February 2018 | doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2018.01.020. Return to text.
- Campbell, K.H.S., McWhir, J., Ritchie, W.A., and Wilmut, I., Sheep cloned by nuclear transfer from a cultured cell line, Nature 380(6569):64–66, 7 March 1996 | doi:10.1038/380064a0. Return to text.
- Sinclair, K.D., Corr, S.A., Gutierrez, C.G., Fisher, P.A., Lee, J.-H, Rathbone, A.J., Choi, I., Campbell, K.H.S., and Gardner, D.S., Healthy ageing of cloned sheep, Nature Communications 7:12359, 2016 | doi:10.1038/ncomms12359. References omitted in quoted paragraph. Return to text.
- Borkhataria, C., On the 20th anniversary of Dolly’s birth, researchers reveal they are putting the four other animals cloned from the same cell line to sleep as there is 'no scientific merit' in keeping the nine year old sheep alive, dailymail.co.uk, 22 February 2017. Return to text.
- Cloning FAQs, Roslin Institute, dolly.roslin.ed.ac.uk/facts/cloning-faqs/; accessed 26 January 2018. Return to text.