Cats and Science
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Cat Cloning Is a Big Fat Myth

If you cloned your cat, would you expect an exact copy? If so, you'd be in for a surprise.

Lisa Richman  |  Aug 20th 2015


Almost five years ago, we suffered the sudden and tragic loss of our sweet and sassy Tonkinese, Ryker. He was literally snatched away from us in the space of four hours, and the grief that followed was intense, overwhelming.

Had someone offered at that moment to clone Ryker for me, to “bring him back from the dead,” I might have taken that person up on it.

Chocolate point Tonkinese, Ryker, of cat blog "A Tonk's Tail"

Ryker, with his favorite stuffed puppy

If I’d chosen that path, I would have been wrong.

Oh, not for any moral or ethical reason, though there are plenty of those, too. Paying $100,000 to clone a cat when literally thousands are euthanized every year? Unthinkable. But that’s not what I mean.

I’m talking about the fact that cloning — especially where cats are concerned — is a big, fat myth. At least the part about creating a cat who is identical to your own in every way.

Yes, a company that offers to clone your cat will extract your cat’s DNA. Yes, that DNA sequence will be identical to that of your beloved pet. But any company that claims it will deliver a perfect replica of your pet is telling you a lie.

It's not just DNA that makes a cat unique.

DNA strand by Shutterstock.

It’s true that having the right DNA sequence is a prerequisite. But it turns out that DNA alone is not enough.

So I have a genetic sample. Now what?

In part, it’s that old “nature vs. nurture” argument that comes into play here, except in this case, it’s nature and nurture that have an impact.

Let’s talk nature first. Every cell in your body has the exact same DNA. But it can be expressed in myriad ways. Think of a DNA strand as having lots of on/off switches running along its length. Turning these switches on or off will result in the development of different types of cells. For example, a skin cell has different “switch” settings than a kidney cell would have.

One thing that affect how DNA is expressed is the environment surrounding a fetus in the womb. Say you have two cloned kitten embryos and you placed them in two surrogate mother cats. The chemicals and nutrients that each embryo receives will be different. Because of that, they will develop differently.

mothercatkittens

How a cat looks has as much to do with what takes place in the mother’s womb as its DNA. Photo of mother cat with kitten by Shutterstock.

Extrapolating backward, then: There’s no way these clones could replicate the original cat’s experience in the womb. Even if by some miracle the original cat’s mother were still alive and around to be impregnated, the combination of nutrients the mother could provide years later is not likely to be the exact same “chemical soup” the original fetus grew in.

That’s a lot of science; what does it all mean?

It means that, when the guys at Texas A&M cloned a calico cat named Rainbow, her genetic twin (named CC, which stands for carbon copy) turned out to be a gray tiger-striped tabby.

These cats are absolutely identical in every way … except for how they look and act. Kind of counterintuitive, isn’t it?

Original cat: a calico. Cloned cat: a tabby.

Rainbow’s clone turned out to be a gray tabby cat, unlike the original, a calico female like the one pictured here. Photos: Calico cat and tabby cat, by Shutterstock

Here’s another difference: Rainbow and CC have the white spotting gene (you can read more about that here), but that gene can express itself in wildly random ways during fetal development. That means there’s no way to control its pattern. If a tuxedo kitten happens to look identical to another, it’s pure, random chance — no more, no less.

Then there’s nurture. While a cat’s basic personality indeed might be tied to his DNA sequence, much of his behavior is learned from his mother while he’s a kitten. Mom influences whether or not a kitten will trust humans. And it’s mom who teaches a kitten how to stalk prey.

No two mothers are alike, and no two environments are, either. So again, we’re left with an end result that differs from the original. The team at Texas A&M put it most succinctly: A cloned cat is a matter of reproduction, and not resurrection. Anything else, according to science writer Emily Anthes, “is pure hokum.”

Cloning companies have closed their doors

This is one reason so many startups that offered pet cloning services closed their doors: Who wants to pay $100,000 for a clone who doesn’t look or act like their dearly departed kitty?

So, as grieving pet parents, we’re left with other ways to keep our beloved pets alive — those methods that have nothing to do with science, but instead with the heart. We keep them alive in our memories, and we honor those memories by rescuing, fostering, adopting, and volunteering.

That’s the best way I can think of to keep Ryker with me forever.

Read more cool cat science stuff by Lisa Richman:

About Lisa Richman: Writer, director, pilot, foodie, cat person. When she’s not on set, this director of film and video can usually be found taking photos of cats (and food) with her trusty Nikon, or cruising aloft at 3,000 feet. She’s cat mom to an opinionated Tonkinese, a hearing-impaired Siamese, and a feline fashionista. She’s also the owner of a recently launched humor blog, and the Cat Writer’s 2014 Entertainment Blog, A Tonk’s Tail.