The possibility of human cloning, raised when Scottish scientists at Roslin Institute created the much-celebrated sheep "Dolly" (Nature 385, 810-13, 1997), aroused worldwide interest and concern because of its scientific and ethical implications. The feat, cited by Science magazine as the breakthrough of 1997, also generated uncertainty over the meaning of "cloning" --an umbrella term traditionally used by scientists to describe different processes for duplicating biological material.

What is cloning? Are there different types of cloning?

When the media report on cloning in the news, they are usually talking about only one type of cloning called reproductive cloning. It is extremely important to know that there are different types of cloning and that cloning technologies can be used for other purposes besides producing the genetic twin of another organism. A basic understanding of the different types of cloning is key to taking a more informed stance on current public policy issues and for making the best possible personal decisions. The following three types of cloning technologies will be discussed: (1) recombinant DNA technology or DNA cloning, (2) reproductive cloning, and (3) therapeutic cloning.

Recombinant DNA Technology or DNA Cloning

The terms "recombinant DNA technology," "DNA cloning," "molecular cloning,"or "gene cloning" all refer to the same process: the transfer of a DNA fragment of interest from one organism to a self-replicating genetic element such as a bacterial plasmid. The DNA of interest can then be propagated in a foreign host cell. This technology has been around since the 1970's, and it has become a common practice in molecular biology labs today.

Scientists studying a particular gene often use bacterial plasmids to generate multiple copies of the same gene. Plasmids are self-replicating extra-chromosomal circular DNA molecules, distinct from the normal bacterial genome. Plasmids and other types of cloning vectors are used by Human Genome Project researchers to copy genes and other pieces of chromosomes to generate enough identical material for further study.

To "clone a gene," a DNA fragment containing the gene of interest is isolated from chromosomal DNA using restriction enzymes and then united with a plasmid that has been cut with the same restriction enzymes. When the fragment of chromosomal DNA is joined with its cloning vector in the lab, it is called a "recombinant DNA molecule." Following introduction into suitable host cells, the recombinant DNA can then be reproduced along with the host cell DNA.

Plasmids can carry up to 20,000 bp of foreign DNA. Besides bacterial plasmids, some other cloning vectors include viruses, bacteria artificial chromosomes (BACs), and yeast artificial chromosomes (YACs). Cosmids are artificially constructed cloning vectors that carry up to 45 kb of foreign DNA and can be packaged in lambda phage particles for infection into E. coli cells. BACs utilize the naturally occurring F-factor plasmid found in E. coli to carry 100- to 300-kb DNA inserts. A YAC is a functional chromosome derived from yeast that can carry up to 1 MB of foreign DNA. Bacteria are most often used as the host cells for recombinant DNA molecules, but yeast and mammalian cells also are used.

Reproductive Cloning

Reproductive cloning is a technology used to generate an animal that has the same nuclear DNA as another currently or previously existing animal. Dolly was created by reproductive cloning technology. In a process called "somatic cell nuclear transfer" (SCNT), scientists transfer genetic material from the nucleus of a donor adult cell to an egg whose nucleus, and thus its genetic material, has been removed. The reconstructed egg containing the DNA from a donor cell must be treated with chemicals or electric current in order to stimulate cell division. Once the cloned embryo reaches a suitable stage, it is transferred to the uterus of a female host where it continues to develop until birth.

Dolly or any other animal created using nuclear transfer technology is not truly an identical clone of the donor animal. Only the clone's chromosomal or nuclear DNA is the same as the donor. Some of the clone's genetic materials come from the mitochondria in the cytoplasm of the enucleated egg. Mitochondria, which are organelles that serve as power sources to the cell, contain their own short segments of DNA. Acquired mutations in mitochondrial DNA are believed to play an important role in the aging process.

Dolly's success is truly remarkable because it proved that the genetic material from a specialized adult cell, such as an udder cell programmed to express only those genes needed by udder cells, could be reprogrammed to generate an entire new organism. Before this demonstration, scientists believed that once a cell became specialized as a liver, heart, udder, bone, or any other type of cell, the change was permanent and other unneeded genes in the cell would become inactive. Some scientists believe that errors or incompleteness in the reprogramming process cause the high rates of death, deformity, and disability observed among animal clones.

Therapeutic Cloning

Therapeutic cloning, also called "embryo cloning," is the production of human embryos for use in research. The goal of this process is not to create cloned human beings, but rather to harvest stem cells that can be used to study human development and to treat disease. Stem cells are important to biomedical researchers because they can be used to generate virtually any type of specialized cell in the human body. Stem cells are extracted from the egg after it has divided for 5 days. The egg at this stage of development is called a blastocyst. The extraction process destroys the embryo, which raises a variety of ethical concerns. Many researchers hope that one day stem cells can be used to serve as replacement cells to treat heart disease, Alzheimer's, cancer, and other diseases.

In November 2001, scientists from Advanced Cell Technologies (ACT), a biotechnology company in Massachusetts, announced that they had cloned the first human embryos for the purpose of advancing therapeutic research. To do this, they collected eggs from women's ovaries and then removed the genetic material from these eggs with a needle less than 2/10,000th of an inch wide. A skin cell was inserted inside the enucleated egg to serve as a new nucleus. The egg began to divide after it was stimulated with a chemical called ionomycin. The results were limited in success. Although this process was carried out with eight eggs, only three began dividing, and only one was able to divide into six cells before stopping.

Read the rest of this excellent article on cloning at the Human Genome Project.

sculpture of DNA strand

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