Have you ever wished you could have a clone of yourself to do homework while you hit the skate park or went out with your friends?
Imagine if you could really do that. Where would you start?
What exactly is cloning?
Cloning is the creation of an organism that is an exact genetic copy of another. This means that every single bit of DNA is the same between the two!
You might not believe it, but there are human clones among us right now. They weren't made in a lab, though: they're identical twins, created naturally. Below, we'll see how natural identical twins relate to modern cloning technologies.
How is cloning done?
You may have first heard of cloning when Dolly the Sheep showed up on the scene in 1997. Cloning technologies have been around for much longer than Dolly, though.
How does one go about making an exact genetic copy of an organism? There are a couple of ways to do this: artificial embryo twinning and somatic cell nuclear transfer. How do these processes differ?
1. Artificial Embryo Twinning
Artificial embryo twinning is the relatively low-tech version of cloning. As the name suggests, this technology mimics the natural process of creating identical twins.
In nature, twins occur just after fertilization of an egg cell by a sperm cell. In rare cases, when the resulting fertilized egg, called a zygote, tries to divide into a two-celled embryo, the two cells separate. Each cell continues dividing on its own, ultimately developing into a separate individual within the mother. Since the two cells came from the same zygote, the resulting individuals are genetically identical.
Artificial embryo twinning uses the same approach, but it occurs in a Petri dish instead of in the mother's body. This is accomplished by manually separating a very early embryo into individual cells, and then allowing each cell to divide and develop on its own. The resulting embryos are placed into a surrogate mother, where they are carried to term and delivered. Again, since all the embryos came from the same zygote, they are genetically identical.
2. Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer
Somatic cell nuclear transfer, (SCNT) uses a different approach than artificial embryo twinning, but it produces the same result: an exact clone, or genetic copy, of an individual. This was the method used to create Dolly the Sheep.
What does SCNT mean? Let's take it apart:
Somatic cell: A somatic cell is any cell in the body other than the two types of reproductive cells, sperm and egg. Sperm and egg are also called germ cells. In mammals, every somatic cell has two complete sets of chromosomes, whereas the germ cells only have one complete set.
Nuclear: The nucleus is like the cell's brain. It's an enclosed compartment that contains all the information that cells need to form an organism. This information comes in the form of DNA. It's the differences in our DNA that make each of us unique.
Transfer: Moving an object from one place to another.
To make Dolly, researchers isolated a somatic cell from an adult female sheep. Next, they transferred the nucleus from that cell to an egg cell from which the nucleus had been removed. After a couple of chemical tweaks, the egg cell, with its new nucleus, was behaving just like a freshly fertilized zygote. It developed into an embryo, which was implanted into a surrogate mother and carried to term.
The lamb, Dolly, was an exact genetic replica of the adult female sheep that donated the somatic cell nucleus to the egg. She was the first-ever mammal to be cloned from an adult somatic cell.
How does SCNT differ from the natural way of making an embryo?
The fertilization of an egg by a sperm and the SCNT cloning method both result in the same thing: a dividing ball of cells, called an embryo. So what exactly is the difference between these methods?
An embryo is composed of cells that contain two complete sets of chromosomes. The difference between fertilization and SCNT lies in where those two sets originated.
In fertilization, the sperm and egg both contain one set of chromosomes. When the sperm and egg join, the resulting zygote ends up with two sets - one from the father (sperm) and one from the mother (egg).
In SCNT, the egg cell's single set of chromosomes is removed. It is replaced by the nucleus from a somatic cell, which already contains two complete sets of chromosomes. Therefore, in the resulting embryo, both sets of chromosomes come from the somatic cell.
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Is cloning an organism the same as cloning a gene?
You've heard about cloning animals - sheep, mice, even house pets - in the news. From time to time, you may have also heard about researchers cloning, or identifying, genes that are responsible for various medical conditions or traits.
What is the difference?
Cloning an animal, or any other organism, refers to making an exact genetic copy of that organism. The techniques used to clone organisms are described on this page.
Cloning a gene means isolating an exact copy of a single gene from the entire genome of an organism. Usually this involves copying the DNA sequence of that gene into a smaller, more accessible piece of DNA, such as a plasmid. This makes it easier to study the function of the individual gene in the laboratory.