28 April 2014
ByAppeared in BioNews 751
Channel 4, Wednesday 9 April 2014
Predictably, the show is full of 'characters' and even as a loving dog-owner watching the show with my black Labrador, I was amazed at the lengths people would go to clone their canines.
The show was a weird mix of X Factor and Tomorrow's World, awash with sob stories used by the owners to justify the need to clone their dog, together with brief moments of explanation of the science and ethics of cloning.
Sooam's lead scientist is Dr Hwang, the first person to clone a dog, Snuppy, in 2005. (Snuppy, you will be delighted to hear, is alive and well.) Since then the company has cloned over 500 dogs, but also everything from goats to coyotes.
The show follows three Sooam staff, two scientists and an accountant, with two cloned dogs as dramatic foils, as they meet hopeful owners and their pooches. One personal highlight was a musical number about cloning sung out of tune in a Scottish pub, with this catchy chorus:
More than a contest, it's a conquest / it's implications are momentous / 'cos not all bodies need to fade / when all we constitute is in our DNA.
Unfortunately this was not even enough to get Hunter (the dog's name) in the top three. Still, that dodgy ditty did raise the issue as to what people were expecting of the winning prize; although the cloned pooch will begenetically identical to its 'parent', the Sooam scientists admit the dog will not actually behave identically. Of the two cloned dogs the team travels with, one is described as 'evil', constantly snapping at everyone she meets. Her clone, apparently, is more tranquil.
The team hunt down publicity and credibility by meeting Professor Ian Wilmut, one of the scientists who created Dolly the sheep. He realises that those that the winner won't get what they truly want, which is their dog again. While it would be a genetic copy, the way it is nurtured will effect its personality, and people will automatically treat a £60,000 dog differently.
The show did put some of the misconceptions about cloning into context. Namely that Dolly died from a viral lung infection, not from an ageing effect brought about by the cloning process.
However the documentary also made an unfortunate choice of phrase while detailing the cloning process. The point where a shot of electricity was administered to cause the embryo to develop was tagged 'the Frankenstein moment'. Scientists and others working in the field must have grimaced when they heard that old chestnut.
Indeed the show has irritated some experts, with the Science Media Centre sending out a response to the program, with Dr Dusko Ilic from King's College London, commenting: 'Cloned animals are like monozygotic twins – similar, but never the same. As time passes by, the differences will be more and more pronounced, especially personality traits. It is absolute waste of money'.
Anyway, the three dog finalists were Solo, Scamp and Winnie, and each had a besotted owner that outlined why they deserved to be cloned.
Solo, an elderly Great Dane, was a champion dog at the age of three and nowadays helps his teenage owner Jack cope with his ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and other behaviour disorders. Scamp is a Border Collie cross from Newcastle, and has helped his over through shared the grief of losing her husband and her mother. Then there was Winnie, a 12-year-old Dachshund owned by Rebecca who credits Winnie in helping her get through her eating disorder.
The scenes where these dogs were pitched to the Sooam representatives would be considered cringe-worthy even on The Apprentice. The winner was Winnie. Owner Rebecca was over the moon, and flew to Korea to see the birth of the clone, Minnie Winnie (or maybe Mini-Winnie?)
The show was clearly an exercise in PR for Sooam, which partly explains the very well-spoken Rebecca's victory.
But I doubt they've pulled off the PR coup they were hoping for. Even as a dog owner, I could not help but think, what was the point? Even if I cloned my dog, he wouldn't be the same ill-disciplined, clumsy animal I know and love, but just another black Labrador and there are much cheaper ways of getting one of those.
Dog cloning is just another fatuous example of rapidly expanding consumerism merging with science, a particularly dubious use of time, research and resources.