March 21, 1997


The thought of more than one Ross Perot -that face, voice and ears- struck me as too much even for science fiction.

When a bacterium divides into two bacteria, each of the resultant bacteria are clones of each other; they are genetically identical. Among animals that sexually reproduce, identical twins are clones of each other.

Recently, there was a report that scientists in Scotland have successfully cloned a sheep. To do this, the nucleus of a fertilized egg was replaced with the nucleus of a cell from the same sheep's udder. The egg was then placed in the uterus of a third sheep. Most of their 300 trials failed and many of the offspring produced were abnormal, before their single success. But they finally succeeded. We have known that this was theoretically possible since the time, many years ago, when a biologist replaced the nucleus of a fertilized frog egg with a body cell from another frog. The conclusion from this and other experiments was that all body cells and egg cells have the same genes. What apparently makes a liver cell different from a skin cell is which genes are "turned on."

It will now be possible for a cattle breeder who has a prize bull that is getting too old to breed, to replace him with a newborn clone of that bull. The technique is sufficiently difficult and uncertain that no one would attempt it unless the animal to be cloned was exceptionally valuable. While it is certain that the technique will become much easier with practice, it will never match the simplicity of natural reproduction. Of course, large cattle breeders now find it cheaper and better to inseminate their females with the frozen sperm from a champion bull, rather than keep their own bull. This despite the fact that intercourse is easier and cheaper than artificial insemination, and the animals enjoy it.

With this development comes wild speculations about what might be done with humans. Even President Clinton got into the act. This speculation is not new. That great scientist and innovator Woody Allen, in one of his movies, had the dictator of a mythical country blown up in an explosion. The only thing left of him was his nose. They were going to clone another dictator from the cells in that nose. Woody steals the nose and so on and on and on. It was a very funny movie and the shenanigans of the press and The President in response to the sheep cloning are equally humorous.

Suppose that Donald Trump decides that he wants to leave his money to a clone of himself. (I was going to use Ross Perot, but the thought of more than one Ross Perot -that face, voice and ears- struck me as too much even for science fiction.) Eventually this should be possible. However, Donald Trump #2 would not have the same programming as the original Donald Trump. Although he would look the same as a young Donald, he would have very different programming. For one thing, he would probably not be as greedy. This clone story would make a good novel or movie. Come to think of it, it has already been written. The book and movie was Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper.

We know from studies of identical twins, that they are always two very different people, despite having identical genetics. To produce identical people, you would not only have to have identical genetics, but an identical upbringing, which is impossible. It is much easier to program a computer than a person. Computers are stupid, while some people are quite intelligent.

While any two cells in a person's body are theoretically identical genetically, very few actually are. Every time that a cell divides, there is a possibility of some genetic errors creeping in. Cells are subject to mutations caused by ionizing radiation and chemicals from natural and man-made sources. The older that one gets, the more variation will exist between the genetics of cells in the same individual. This might account for the malformed embryos in the sheep cloning experiments. It is possible to reduce this by freezing some cells soon after an individual is born.

The British, being far ahead of the rest of the world in forbidding things, have made such experiments on people illegal. It seems probable that some enterprising congressman will propose a law. However, since the only people who might be interested in exploiting this technique are both rich and crazy, the legislation will never fly. You can be sure that, as has been done with freezing of living tissues, someone will be glad to take rich people's money in exchange for something of no value whatever.

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