One Of A Kind

August 29, 1998|By Michele Nevard | Michele Nevard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ROSLIN, Scotland -- If sheep could read the newspapers, Dolly, the queen of clones, might be jealous about now.

Dolly is the ewe, you know, who was the first successful adult-mammal clone, born July 5, 1996. Since then, she's led the life of a star.

But now comes the news this week that an anonymous millionaire is donating $2.3 million to researchers at Texas A&M University to find a way to clone his much-beloved pound dog, a 12-year-old border collie/husky mix named Missy.

Will the Dolly spotlight fade?

Not anytime soon, it appears. Even Mark Westhusin, lead researcher on the "Missyplicity" project, cautions that little is known about dogs' reproductive physiology, so cloning Missy will be harder than cloning a sheep.

Dr. Harry Griffin, assistant director of Scotland's Roslin Institute, where Dolly was cloned, said yesterday that he thought it would be better for the millionaire to "buy a good-quality pedigree dog and spend the millions of dollars more wisely."

Roslin has had "30 or 40 requests by individuals to clone their pets and turned them down," Griffin said. "It encourages people to think you can resurrect an animal, and you can't. It's not possible to re-create an individual."

The genes may be identical, but, like Dolly, the cloned Missy would have behavior and personality of her own.

Griffin should know. As a visit to the celebrity sheep shows, Dolly is one of a kind.

The seven-mile drive from Edinburgh to the Roslin Institute in Midlothian passes through field after field of grazing cattle, with the hills of the Central Lowlands as a backdrop. Much of this farmland is owned by Roslin, a major research center for the study of farm animals.

Roslin remained in scientific obscurity until Dolly, a Finn Dorset ewe, was born, the result of a new technique of cloning. Overnight, the world traveled to catch a glimpse of Roslin's star attraction, and she's been in the limelight since.

Approaching the institute, an unassuming sign tells you you've arrived. A single security bar, with a small gatehouse, temporarily halts you, before you drive past laboratories to the main reception. An aerial shot would showlow-rise, sprawling buildings on 150 acres of farmland and, tucked in a corner, the brick barn where Dolly lives.

You drive five minutes farther, accompanied by Griffin, and reach another security bar. Griffin announces his presence into an intercom, and the bar is raised. All around is deserted; the scientists are at work in their labs.

Dolly's home exudes none of the glamour of her namesake, Dolly Parton. The ewe lives in a cream-painted building with a corrugated tin roof. This is a barn of clones achieved through different processes. Only Dolly was cloned from an adult cell rather than from, say, a fetal cell.

Griffin disappears to get a key for the padlock on the metal gates at the barn door. Dolly is not insured, he says. There are no security guards. For a sheep with celebrity status, she enjoys little of the razzmatazz of stardom.

As Griffin unlocks the gates announcing our arrival, heads turn. Sixteen heads, to be precise.

Fourteen cream-colored sheep and two black ones are housed in pens with straw beds. Only one immediately comes forward, and utters a very loud bleat by way of greeting. Dolly.

"She's as vocal a sheep as I've ever known," says John Bracken, one of her keepers. "She got to recognize people in ways you wouldn't normally expect a sheep to be like." Like a dog.

Dolly is round and cuddly. She likes having her ears tickled and warms to affection. She's a sheep with personality and knows how to get what she wants -- usually extra food.

To get her to pay attention to visitors' cameras, she's given treats, protein pellets. "This must be like caviar to a sheep reared on hay," Griffin says.

Dolly knows "she's the more interesting of the sheep and plays up to that," says Griffin.

She plays up to it so much that she developed a slight weight problem last year, and had to be put on a diet when researchers decided to see whether a clone could give birth to a healthy lamb.

Dolly is penned with that lamb, Bonnie, born at 4 a.m. April 13 this year. Unlike her mother, Bonnie was conceived and born naturally. Her father was David, a Welsh mountain ram.

Dolly started life as a reconstructed egg, floating in a pink culture serum in a flask. The egg was created from an individual cell, taken from a 6-year-old Finn Dorset ewe, that was fused with an unfertilized egg from which the genetic material was removed. The cells were cultured in the lab before being implanted into a surrogate Scottish Blackface ewe.

The process is not new, but the method is.

"You can genetically modify cells in these sort of flasks in a very precise way," says Griffin. "You can add genes, not just add them anywhere to your DNA, but you can actually insert them at a specific point. In a culture of 10 billion letters of the genetic code, you can alter just one of them."

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