And a happy new year to all. --PG
January 1, 2009
Beloved Pets Everlasting?
By ERIC KONIGSBERG
THE most difficult thing about the cloned puppies is not telling them
apart, but explaining why they don't look exactly alike. This was
the problem Lou Hawthorne faced on a recent afternoon hike with Mira
and MissyToo, two dogs whose embryos were created from the preserved,
recycled and repurposed nuclear DNA of the original Missy, a border
collie-husky mix who died in 2002.
To be sure, they have a very strong resemblance to each other and to
Missy. It's just that sometimes, as soon as people hear that the
dogs are clones, the questions start coming:
"Why is one dog's fur curlier?"
"Why aren't the dogs the same size?"
"Why is one of them darker?"
"Why does this one have a floppy ear?"
Mr. Hawthorne, who is 48, is highly invested in the notion of
likeness. With clones, after all, what good does similar do? It is Mr.
Hawthorne's biotech company, BioArts, which is based here in the Bay
Area but has arrangements with a laboratory in South Korea, that
performed the actual cloning.
He also has particular reason to be sensitive to questions that touch
on the authenticity of the clones, given the history of his chief
geneticist, Dr. Hwang Woo Suk of the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation
in South Korea. Dr. Hwang is perhaps best known for fraudulently
reporting in 2004 that a team he led had successfully cloned human
embryos and stem cells. After the false claims were unearthed, he was
fired by Seoul National University, where he did his research as a
professor. But he is also widely acknowledged for having been involved
in successfully cloning an Afghan hound in 2005.
"Dr. Hwang's past is obviously controversial, but we feel that his
lab and his record when it comes to dog cloning are the best in the
field," Mr. Hawthorne said. "He's been very open with me about
admitting his mistakes. Nobody says he lied about cloning
Elizabeth Wictum, associate director of the Veterinary Genetics
Laboratory at the University of California, Davis, said that earlier
this year, she and her staff had taken sets of DNA extracts from Mr.
Hawthorne's puppies and compared them with stored samples of
Missy's DNA, and concluded that the results were "consistent with
"The puppies had the same nuclear DNA as Missy, and different
mitochondrial DNA, which is what you get from a cloned animal," Ms.
Wictum said. "If somebody were trying to, say, sneak in two samples
from the same dog or an identical twin and claim that one was a
clone's, there would be no differentiation between the nuclear and
Missy 1.0 - Mira and MissyToo's "genetic donor," as Mr.
Hawthorne calls her when he's speaking technically - was his
mother's dog. To date, he said, there are four Missy clones running
around, all born between December 2007 and June 2008. Mira lives at
Mr. Hawthorne's house in Mill Valley and MissyToo between homes in
Mill Valley and San Francisco, both owned by his mother's boyfriend;
clones No. 3 and 4 were given away to friends and now live in Phoenix
and Boulder, respectively. (Two others were produced but died of
parvovirus as newborns.)
In July, Mr. Hawthorne held a series of online auctions, offering his
services to four high bidders who agreed to pay from $130,000 to
$170,000 for clones of their dogs. (To offset accusations of elitism,
Mr. Hawthorne also held a search for a fifth, pro bono client.) Over
the last few weeks, the first three puppies from this group were born
in South Korea.
Mr. Hawthorne claims Missy's clones are the world's first
commercially cloned dogs, although RNL Bio, a Korean company with
which he is embroiled in a legal dispute over patent rights - and
the chance to dominate the dog-cloning market - has also made this
claim. Between 2004 and 2006, another company Mr. Hawthorne ran cloned
cats for a handful of paying customers. Dogs are among the most
difficult mammals to clone, scientists say, because their reproductive
systems are highly atypical, but Mr. Hawthorne thinks that the market
When Mr. Hawthorne recalls Missy, he tends to wax eugenic. "She was
an amazing dog: superior intellect, incredibly beautiful, obedient, a
phenomenal temperament," he said. "I especially loved her majestic
plume of a tail." And in the clones, as he put it matter-of-factly,
"all those qualities are represented."
As for some of the discrepancies, the clones vary in size and color,
Mr. Hawthorne said, primarily because they were born months apart, and
none are fully grown yet. "The dark part of their fur starts out
reddish-black and gets blacker over time," he said. "Except on the
faces, which start out black and go white within the first
Each clone's embryo was created by joining Missy's nuclear DNA
with the enucleated (which is to say, DNA-stripped) egg of a different
dog. The eggs, with their new DNA from Missy, began to grow and
divide. After that, each was carried to term in the uterus of still
another dog - a step which, though it has no bearing on the dogs'
genetic makeup, can affect such external traits as the waviness of fur
and the up-or-down pointing of the ears. (It has to do with different
levels of collagen.)
On his afternoon trek around Lake Lagunitas, Mr. Hawthorne did his
best to explain these matters to his audience, picnicking families who
sat transfixed as the two dogs he calls "clisters" - his made-up
word for clone sisters - took turns chasing each other off
"Can they clone coconut?" a girl asked.
"Sorry, we don't do vegetables," Mr. Hawthorne said.
A parent clarified: Coconut was the family dog's name. "Can you
clone a three-year-old housebroken dog?"
Mr. Hawthorne went on gamely. "Learned behavior, no. But a lot of
behavior is hereditary," he said.
While he does acknowledge that when it comes to such highly trainable
creatures as dogs, it's pretty difficult to know where nature ends
and nurture begins, he said that in the case of his dogs, the
ambiguities have nothing on the essential Missy-ness of the
"The girls love to run after each other," he said pointing at the
dogs in the distance. "You see the speed and athleticism? That's
part of what made me want to do this. There are dogs that are faster
on a straightaway, but I'd never seen a dog make turns like this
Mr. Hawthorne sees himself as a cultivator of prodigious talent -
from the clones to his team of scientists in South Korea to his
8-year-old son, Skye, who had accompanied him and the dogs on the
hike. Skye is in third grade but is already studying high school
algebra. Mr. Hawthorne brought along a notebook with a handful of
quadratic-equation problems, in case his son got restless.
Last spring, Skye completed a science project, "Cloning Grandma's
Dog" that included a behavioral comparison chart. Among other
findings, the study concluded that Mira shares Missy's fondness for
broccoli and "lots of snuggles" - both dogs scored five out of
five points in these categories, in addition to the one for "likes
long walks." ("Most dogs do," Skye noted under "comments.")
Two key matters of variance were "Jumps into cars" ("Clone still
learning which car is ours") and "Hates camera flash" ("Clone
did not respond to standard flash").
Ultimately, Skye determined that Mira looked a lot like Missy but that
their behavior was only 77 percent similar. "But that was April,"
Mr. Hawthorne said. "I think they're a lot more similar
LIVING with a clone, Mr. Hawthorne claims, is a lot like living with
the original dog. "It's totally as if I've got Missy in my
house, once you get over the 'wow' factor," he said. He and Mira
and Skye inhabit a two-story "1950s futurist house" built into a
hill in Mill Valley (Mr. Hawthorne is divorced and shares custody of
his son with his ex-wife - "an excellent genetic donor, by the
way," he said of her). At night, he said, Mira "puts Skye to bed,"
which means she walks with him to his room and ascends the stairs of
his loft bed with him, waiting to be told "Good night" before she
leaves. Mira is an outdoor dog, as Missy was, and sleeps on the front
And who says goodnight to Mira's fellow clone, MissyToo? Mr.
Hawthorne gave her to his mother, Joan Hawthorne, who still misses the
original Missy. But she has yet to take a liking to Missy's progeny,
and the dog has lived primarily with paid "handlers" in the Mill
Valley pied-à-terre of her longtime companion, John Sperling.
"They're not at all alike," Ms. Hawthorne said of the old Missy
and the new one. "In looks, they are a little bit, of course. But, I
mean, the puppy is delicate and aggressive. Missy was robust and
completely calm." She added, "Missy wouldn't come through my
home and knock over every wineglass."
Besides, she adopted another puppy not long after Missy died. "I
already have a dog - a real dog."
The idea of trying to clone Missy in the first place came from Mr.
Sperling, who has been in the family picture since Mr. Hawthorne was 4
years old - Mr. Hawthorne typically refers to him as his stepfather
- back in 1997. At the time, Mr. Hawthorne was at a sort of career
crossroads, having worked in the interactive video-production business
and just returned from five months riding a motorcycle across India.
Mr. Sperling, who would not agree to be interviewed, is a billionaire
who founded the University of Phoenix, the adult-education institution
with nearly 200 locations. Mr. Hawthorne said that his various
fruitless attempts at cloning were paid for by more than $15 million
of Mr. Sperling's money, some of which went to purchasing several
competing and related biotech businesses in what Mr. Hawthorne
described as an industry roll-up.
"It's kind of weird," Mr. Hawthorne said. "They spent 10 years
waiting for this to happen and then they don't even want the dogs
living with them." In recent weeks, he added, Mr. Sperling has been
making an effort to keep MissyToo with him at his house in San
Francisco. ("He's going to have to launch on some serious dog
training," Ms. Hawthorne said of this new development.)
On the day of the hike around the reservoir, Mr. Hawthorne, with a
reporter as his audience, telephoned Nina and Ed Otto, auction winners
in July - they paid $155,000 - who were about to learn that they
were the proud owners of the project's first spawn. A clone of
Lancelot, their late yellow Labrador, had been born a couple of days
earlier in South Korea.
From the courtyard of a Starbucks, he dialed their home in Florida on
his cellphone. "Your little Lancelot is here," Mr. Hawthorne
informed Mrs. Otto.
He followed up with date and time of birth, weight (540 grams, or 19
ounces), then e-mailed two pictures of the newborn as they spoke.
"Breathe, breathe," Mr. Hawthorne said. "How does he
"He looks like Neanderthal Man," Mr. Otto called out from the
"No, he doesn't," his wife said.
"I can't say he looks exactly like our other one," Mr. Otto
"Yes, he does," his wife said.
Several days later - the Ottos will not see their new dog
face-to-face until he is 10 weeks old, when they'll have him flown
to the United States - Mrs. Otto said they were ecstatic about
"having the essence of our Lancelot back."
"We can barely contain ourselves," said Mr. Otto, the chief
executive of a medical-equipment company whose father was an early
Nascar promoter. "We have 8 children and 11 grandchildren and 9
dogs. Lancelot was the dog that was most humanlike in his behavior. He
died last year - cancer."
Mrs. Otto said: "The only problem with dogs is that they have such a
"Cloning means you could have the opportunity to have the same
dog with you for your entire life," Mr. Otto said.