In the case of plants, cloning has found applications in horticulture, with many vegetative / asexual reproduction methods being regularly used for propagation to create genetically-identical plants. Cloning is also known to occur in nature, even if very rarely. The cloning controversy and its ethical as well as safety concerns, however revolves only around animal and human cloning.
Cloning in the contemporary and biological sense, is the creation of a living organism that is genetically completely identical with another. The process is carried out by removing the nucleus from an egg cell and placing the nucleus extracted from a cell of the organism to be cloned in its place. The egg cell is implanted in a surrogate mother, and acts as a host and develops into an organism genetically similar to the donor of the introduced nucleus. Cloning also goes a step further with genetic manipulation – removal of so-called ‘undesirable’ genes and insertion of ‘desirable’ ones. This is just an over-simplified outline but provides a basic idea of what cloning entails.
Critics of cloning have placed strong ethical arguments against the technique and its laboratory processes. Tinkering with genetic structure, ‘playing God’ and producing ‘designer babies’ (genetic manipulation) has serious ethical implications which are further compounded by the complexity of gene behaviour and genetic structure. Genes interact in intricate and complex ways not yet understood by scientists and considering the vastness of the genome, perhaps scientists never will.
Gene replacement and cloning are therefore fraught with serious uncertainties and risks, and removal or insertion of a gene may have serious unexpected side effects. Also, genetic structure once altered will remain for eternity, being passed on from generation to generation, with the possibility of pollution and weakening of the species’ gene pool. Another facet of this is that an individual’s ‘genetic legacy’ is lost for ever. Genetic diversity can also be reduced, thus increasing susceptibility to disease. In fact, the last is one of the strongest arguments against cloning of endangered species. Instead of helping the species, cloning can actually help wipe it out altogether.
Cloning thus presents serious risks for the organism that develops from the process, as well as the species cloned (or genetically-modified). Till today, a very low success rate in cloning has been accompanied by early deaths and accelerated ageing. How many imperfect, living creatures will be created before science can claim to have perfected its technique is any body’s guess.