Tuesday, April 16, 2013

#Scistuchat – Cloning

by MeganN, This post originally appeared at the Future Science Leaders blog.

When I throw out the name Dolly, what is the first visual that comes to your mind?  I’m willing to guess that the majority of readers first thought of either Dolly Parton, American singer and songwriter or –likely the more science-y folks – thought of Dolly the Sheep.  The scandalous life of Dolly Parton could definitely warrant a blog, however, Dolly the Sheep is undeniably something that is more down my aisle of interests!  Dolly the Sheep is an iconic symbol across the world because she was the first mammal to be cloned using human DNA.  In part because of bad sci-fi movies and the hyperbolizing media, when we think of cloning, we often visualize reproductive cloning – a technology used to generate an animal that has the same nuclear DNA as another currently or previously existing animal.  In all truth, there are actually many other more common and less controversial applications of cloning which we often forget about.
Cloning has been on my mind because I was lucky enough to sit in on my first twitter#scistuchat.  This monthly “tweet-up” brings together high school students (like me!) with scientists from all sorts of backgrounds.  The topics are planned in advance and generally focus on pressing science issues from the news like evolution, the use of stem cells, research funding and, Thursday evening’s session, cloning.
The session began with the general question, “what is cloning?” Karen James, who has a PhD in genetics, tweeted, “A clone is an identical copy of an organism, a cell or a piece of DNA. Cloning is the act of making such a copy.”
Like I have previously mentioned, there is much more to cloning to be understood than just reproductive cloning.  Cloning occurs all the time in nature. For example, asexual reproduction. When cells reproduce they are essentially cloning themselves.  The two other major types of cloning are recombinant DNA technology and Therapeutic Cloning.  The latter occurs when human embryos are produced for research, usually with the goal of harvesting stem cells to study diseases and human development.  The Human Genome project states that, “Scientists hope that one day therapeutic cloning can be used to generate tissues and organs for transplants.” Recombinant DNA technology is often used in molecular biology labs because it allows scientists to transfer a section of DNA that interests them to a self-replicating genetic element such as a bacterial plasmid.
Where else can we find examples of cloning? Think about starfish.  These lucky guys can regenerate parts of their body if they have been injured.  Cloning is used in the study and production of genetically modified foods.  When cloning is thought of outside of the context of reproductive cloning, it is easier to see how critical cloning is to research and developmental techniques.
After discussing some of the logistics of cloning, the discussion moved on to some questions that really don’t have any definite answers.  High school students and scientists addressed the issue, should humans be cloned and if not whole humans, what about organs and tissue?  Responses varied, but I think we could have all agreed that it really depends.  It depends on risk rate, success rate, rationale, purpose, and so much more.  There is definitely not one “correct” answer to any of these questions.  It seems that, in general, most people can agree that cloning is not something we are ready for.  The Human Genome Project information on: Should Humans Be Cloned states that “Due to the inefficiency of animal cloning (only about 1 or 2 viable offspring for every 100 experiments) and the lack of understanding about reproductive cloning, many scientists and physicians strongly believe that it would be unethical to attempt to clone humans.” In addition, “Physicians from the American Medical Association and scientists with the American Association for the Advancement of Science have issued formal public statements advising against human reproductive cloning.”
Scientists and researchers, like most other people, just want to best for society.  Their goals are often to improve standard of living and to help cure devastating diseases.  There is an understanding among scientists that we are not yet ready to step into the figurative “deep end” of the cloning pool.  As technology and research advance, I think it will be very exciting to see how and if cloning becomes part of our lives.
Thursday evening was my first #scistuchat and I wholeheartedly believe that it was a great experience.  The entire conversation got me really thinking about the issue of cloning more than any textbook or lecture ever could.  I was questioning the ethics and the controversies as well as asking myself how I felt about certain issues.  Tweet ups like this prove how social media can be extraordinarily educational if used correctly.  In what other way could high school students from all over North America have the opportunity to communicate with real scientists?! It’s communication like this that truly impact students.  I learned about these fabulous twitter meetings at ScienceOnline from @2footgiraffee (aka) Adam Taylor and I also got to hear about his movement to unblock twitter from his high school classroom.  I hope that he succeeds in his endeavours and I wish his students the best of luck.
For more information about cloning, visit the Human Genome Project’s Cloning Fact Sheet.
Also check out this blog on my personal site!
About this contributor: MeganN is an 18 year old health nut from Vancouver, BC. She loves running, volunteering, leadership, and of course, science! She hopes to one day go into a career in medicine.

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