Tag Archives: cloning

When South African bees reproduce asexually, they make near-perfect clones of themselves

Being able to clone yourself does have some advantages. There’s no more need to find mates, which means you save quite a bit of time and. Turns out, South African Cape bees have almost mastered this art: when workers reproduce, they create almost perfect clones.

African bees feeding on an agave plant. Image credits: JMK.

Parthenogenesis is a form of asexual reproduction. It doesn’t require any male fertilization — which makes it very convenient in some regards. Parthenogenesis occurs naturally in some plants and invertebrate species, and quite rarely, in a few vertebrate species (like fish, amphibians, reptiles, and very rarely birds). For all its advantages though, it also has a few major drawbacks.

The first is a lack of genetic diversity — you’re essentially reproducing by yourself, which means your gene pool doesn’t get any fresh input. But there’s perhaps an even bigger problem: the parthenogenesis itself.

Oftentimes, the approach doesn’t lead to perfect offspring as tiny bits of genetic material get mixed up. These mistakes (called recombinations) can lead to non-productive eggs or birth defects. But the African Cape honey bees appear to be able to avoid recombinations and produce near-perfect clones of themselves. The queens reproduce sexually, but for the workers, it’s asexual all the way.

To reach this conclusion , the researchers employed a cruel trick: they taped the reproductive organs of a queen, preventing males from mating with her. At the same time, they allowed both her and the worker bees in the same hive to reproduce asexually. They then tested the degree of recombination in both cases.

They found that the offspring of the queen had almost 100 times more genetic defects than the worker bees — while the offspring of worker bees were almost perfect clones of them. Even more testing found that one line of worker bees had been cloning themselves for almost 30 years, without showing any notable defects — suggesting that this is a viable long-term strategy, at least under some circumstances.

“We tested our hypothesis that Cape workers have evolved mechanisms that restrain genetic recombination, whereas queens have no need for such mechanisms because they reproduce sexually,” the researchers conclude.

The team also adds that despite their unique abilities, the bees are very much in line with evolution — they’re doing what serves them best in the long run.

Journal Reference: Benjamin P. Oldroyd et al, Adaptive, caste-specific changes to recombination rates in a thelytokous honeybee population, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (2021). DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2021.0729

Closeup of Dolly. Credit: Geographic.

Dolly the cloned sheep did not age prematurely, suggesting cloning hazards have been exagerated

When the world’s first cloned animal died in 2003 at the age of six, many suspected the cloning process put Dolly into an early grave. A new investigation of the cloned sheep’s bones by scientists at the Universities of Glasgow and Nottingham suggests Dolly showed no signs of abnormal aging.

Closeup of Dolly. Credit: Geographic.

Closeup of Dolly. Credit: Geographic.

In 2004, researchers found that Dolly’s telomers — stretches of DNA at the end of our chromosomes which protect our genetic data like shoelace caps, allow cells to divide and hold some secrets to how we age and get cancer — were shorter than they should have been. This has prompted suspicions that the process of cloning itself might reduce lifespan, or that the famous clone’s painful osteoarthritis was the result of some inherent flaws with cloning.

Researchers gained access to the bones of Dolly, now housed at the National Museum of Scotland, but also those of her offspring Bonnie, as well as two other cloned sheep, Megan and Morag (two sheep cloned from non-adult cells who were prototypes for Dolly). All the bones were X-rayed for signs of arthritis. Megan and Bonnie died at the ripe old ages of 13 and nine, respectively, and showed some signs of arthritis, as is normal for their age. Morag died at age four due to the same lung virus that killed Dolly but did not show any signs of arthritis. Ultimately, the researchers concluded that arthritis is no more common among clones than ordinary sheep.

“We found that the prevalence and distribution of radiographic osteoarthritis were similar to that observed in naturally conceived sheep, and our healthy aged cloned sheep,” said Sandra Corr, professor of small animal orthopaedic surgery at Glasgow University.

“As a result we conclude that the original concerns that cloning had caused early-onset osteoarthritis in Dolly were unfounded.”

A researchers prepares a cloned sheep's bones for X-ray. Credit: University of Nottingham.

Researchers prepare a cloned sheep’s bones for X-ray. Credit: University of Nottingham.

Previously, Kevin Sinclair, a developmental biologist at the University of Nottingham and co-author of the new study, studied 13 cloned sheep — including four derived from the same DNA strand as Dolly — and concluded that there didn’t seem to be any evidence that indicates cloning has any long-term health risks. Dolly’s ‘four sisters’ all lived to be at least eight years old, which is the approximate equivalent of 70 in human years, and all lived a healthy life.  “They’re old ladies,” said Kevin Sinclair, a developmental biologist and lead author of the study of the 2016 study published in Nature Communications. “They’re very healthy for their age,” he added.

The Atlantic reports that since Dolly was cloned, a whole menagerie of other animals has been cloned as well: pigs, dogs, cats, monkeys etc. Studies that followed such clones found that their telomeres were shorter, normal or even longer. It all depended on the species and cloning technique.

That being said, this doesn’t mean that cloning is 100% safe. Scientists are still learning and more research is needed to investigate the full scope of cloning. For instance, a team from South Korea has recloned the world’s first cloned dog to investigate whether or not cloning shortens or affects lifespan in any way. So far, the nine-month-old pups are healthy and seem normal.

The three surviving reclones of 'Snuppy' at 2 month of age. Credit: Scientific Reports.

Scientists ‘reclone’ world’s first cloned dog

Ever since scientists cloned the first animal, a sheep named Dolly, one important question on everyone’s mind was whether or not a clone can expect a poorer health. This is still an open question, one that South Korean researchers hope to settle in time. They’ve essentially cloned a clone, using cells from the world’s first cloned dog, an Afghan hound named Snuppy.

The three surviving reclones of 'Snuppy' at 2 month of age. Credit: Scientific Reports.

The three surviving reclones of ‘Snuppy’ at 2 months of age. Credit: Scientific Reports.

Theoretically, a clone is a carbon copy of the original organism, with the two sharing identical genes. The science of cloning, however, is still in its infancy and there are many loose ends that we might be missing. There is a possibility that the cloned individual might carry certain abnormalities, and may have a shorter life expectancy. Another concern is that cloned individuals might retain the age of the donor’s gene, seeing how genes change with age. 

Clones of clones

Dolly the sheep died at age six, which raised concerns that cloned individuals might not be entirely healthy. The sheep appeared to age faster than normal and suffered from osteoarthritis in her knees and hips at an early age. But a follow-up study of 13 cloned sheep — including four derived from the same DNA strand as Dolly– concluded that there didn’t seem to be any evidence that indicates cloning has any long-term health effects. “They’re old ladies,” said Kevin Sinclair, a developmental biologist and lead author of the study of the 2016 study published in Nature Communications. “They’re very healthy for their age,” he added.

Scientists at the Seoul National University, South Korea, are now also investigating the health of ‘clones of clones’, this time in dogs. Snuppy, became the world’s first cloned dog in April 2005. He was cloned from the cells belonging to an Afghan hound called Tai who lived to be 12 years old and died of cancer. Snuppy lived 10 years and also died of cancer but a different kind. Afghan hounds live to be 11.9 years on average and dogs commonly die of cancer so there’s really nothing unusual about either dogs, donor or clone.

The team led by Min Jung Kim used stem cells collected from Snuppy when the dog was five years old. The scientists then employed somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) to insert Snuppy’s cells into eggs collected from female dogs whose nuclei were removed. A total of 94 embryos were created which were then implanted into surrogate mothers. The success rate was 4.3 percent leading to four live births of ‘reclones’. That might seem really low but take a minute to consider that during the time Snuppy was first born (let’s call him ‘Snuppy Mark 1’), the success rate was only 0.2%.

One of the four reclones died within a few days from birth due to diarrhea while the other three grew to be nine months old when the Kim and colleagues drafter their paper, now published in Scientific Reports. They’re still alive and well, seemingly healthy. The dogs will be closely monitored in the years to come.

“With the data from Tai and Snuppy in hand, we are excited to follow the long-term health and aging processes of these second generation of clones and work with them to contribute to a new era of studying longevity of cloned canines and given the history of both Tai and Snuppy they may also provide potential insights into the development of cancer,” the authors concluded.

China builds massive cloning factory to feed its people

Here’s a little exercise in imagination; you’re going over to some friends’ place for dinner, and they present you with a huge steak that looks so delicious it makes your mouth water. You cut out a bite and just before your lips touch the much-craved morsel you hear your host saying it’s “top quality cloned-veal.”

What do you do now? Do you eye your steak suspiciously and then try your best to ignore it the whole meal or do you chow down on your not-so-unique cut of veal?

One of these things is just like the others.
Image via wikipedia

A controversial choice

It seems that there are as many opinions regarding the use of cloned meat for food as there are peoples. On one side of the spectrum, we have the European Parliament, who recently passed a law that outright bans the sale of cloned livestock. At the same time, despite evidence that cloned animals live shorter lives than their born-and-bred brothers, the FDA considers “there are no complications that are unique to cloning” and so the meat is safe to eat. US law doesn’t require any special labeling for cloned meat, while officials don’t really know how common the use of cloned meat in food is, most cloned cattle in the country are probably not sold for food but used as breed stock.

And now China steps up to color the other end of the specter — a massive, 200 million yuan (over $31 million) commercial animal cloning facility will be built in the Tianjin Economic-Technological Development Area (a government-owned business area about 100 miles out of Beijing) with the sole purpose of cloning China’s cattle. And given the country’s already immense population, positive birthrate but most of all its burgeoning middle-class, it’s gonna be a lot of cattle.

“We are going [down] a path that no one has ever travelled. We are building something that has not existed in the past,” said Xu Xiaochun, chief executive of BoyaLife, the company behind the new operation for The Guardian.

The company intends to produce 100,000 cow embryos each year, providing around 5 percent of the meat eaten in China. BoyaLife also plans to clone champion racehorses and dogs used to sniff out victims of natural disasters or stashes of illegal drugs. Xu also told The Guardian that the new clone factory would be used to prevent endangered species from going extinct.

“This is going to change our world and our lives. It is going to make our life better. So we are very, very excited about it,” Xu added.

South Korean company Sooam Biotech will also participate in setting up the cloning complex, lending their expertise in this field (apparently they can even clone your dog for you, if you wand that for whatever reason) to the factory processes. The company is run by scientist Hwang Woo-suk, once known as “the pride of Korea” and the “king of cloning,” who has since fell out of grace and was dismissed from his post at Seoul National University when it was found he fabricated a series of experiments in 2006. It seems he was guilty of “research fraud and gross ethical lapses in the way he obtained human eggs for his experiments.”

Still, his partners from China aren’t discouraged by this, and work on their factory is in full swing, and almost complete.

 “We want it to be modern, we want it to be cutting edge. We want it to represent the future,” Xu concluded.

Scientists want to ‘de-extinct’ 22 species, including the wooly mammoth, the Dodo bird and the tasmanian tiger

So far… it’s re-extinction

ibex

Almost 10 years ago, on July 30, 2003, a team of Spanish and French scientists reversed time. They brought an animal back from extinction, if only just to see it go extinct again. The animal they revived was a kind of wild goat known as a bucardo, or Pyrenean ibex. For tens of thousands of years, the animal thrived in the Pyrenees, the mountain range that divides France from Spain, where it clambered along cliffs, eating whatever plants and roots it could, enduring harsh winter after harsh winter. Then the humans came – with their guns. Hunting season after hunting season, their numbers dwindled down, and in 1989, just 12 individuals remained. 10 years from that, a single female was left, and not long afterwards, the bucardos became officially extinct.

Over the next few years a team of reproductive physiologists led by José Folch injected nuclei from those cells into goat eggs emptied of their own DNA, then implanted the eggs in surrogate mothers. From the 57 implantations, only 7 animals became pregnant. Out of those 7 pregnancies, 6 ended in miscarriage; one of them however, was brought to term – but only for 10 minutes. A huge lobe in its lung prevented it from actually breathing; there was nothing anyone could do, and the bucardos became extinct – once more.

The idea of bringing back species through cloning has hovered on the border of reality and science fiction for a few decades now, but are we really at that time when we actually bring them back?

“We are at that moment,” sayd Fernández-Arias, now the head of the government of Aragon’s Hunting, Fishing and Wetlands department.

De-extinction


The term is definitely lacking, but for the lack of a better one, we’ll keep using it. At a TEDx conference in Washington DC sponsored by National Geographic, scientists met to discuss which animals should be brought back from extinction. They discussed the why, the how, and perhaps most important, the ethics behind this kind of project.

The thing is, the list of recently-gone extinct animals (because of human activity) is really large (7 animals recently gone extinct), so even if all the scientific methods are available, we have to choose wisely where we have to invest time and resources. Are the species practical choices – do they provide any advantage to the environment? Do they hold an important ecological function, or are they beloved by humans? It’s a pretty tricky area, especially considering how the environment has changed.

In fact, this is a very puzzling issue; even if we say, manage to bring back a species, its environment would be different; the ecological niche it once filled is almost certainly gone by now. Migration patterns have changed, food sources have changed, temperatures have changed, and in a way, even if it is a perfect physical clone, the species will not be the same.

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The gastric brooding frog incubates and hatches its eggs in its gut. The hatchlings then exit through the frog's mouth. (c) Australian Government Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts

Scientists resurrect extinct frog species that gives birth through its mouth

The gastric brooding frog incubates and hatches its eggs in its gut. The hatchlings then exit through the frog's mouth. (c) Australian Government Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts

The gastric brooding frog incubates and hatches its eggs in its gut. The hatchlings then exit through the frog’s mouth. (c) Australian Government Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts

In a great leap forward towards reviving extinct animal species, scientists at University of New South Wales, Australia have grown embryos that contain the genetic markup of a rather peculiar, yet unfortunately extinct frog species native to Australia. The frog died off in the 1980s due to parasites, loss of habitat, invasive weeds and fungus, and was one of the few animals known in the world to give birth through its mouth.

Birth through its mouth? Well, we’ve heard of weirder uses of the oral cavity, like urinating, but the gastric-brooding frog’s breeding trick is quite nifty. When this frog used to lay eggs, these were coated in a substance called prostaglandin, which breaks off the gastric acid in the stomach, making it a hospitable place for just about anything, including eggs. Naturally, the frog swallows these eggs, incubates them directly in the gut and when they hatch, the little baby frogs crawl out through the mouth.

Alas, both subspecies of frog – the the northern and souther gastric-brooding frog – went extinct sometime in the mid ’80s, yet genetics is not keen of farewells. Aptly named the Lazarus project, scientists have inserted dead genetic material of the extinct amphibian (conveniently, frozen specimens were kept in a common household freezer) into the donor eggs of another related species of living frog  – the great barred frog, which also lives in Queensland.

“In the beginning, the single cell eggs just sat there. But then, all of a sudden, one of the cells divided, and then it divided again, and again,” said University of NSW palaeontologist Mike Archer.

“There were a lot of high fives around the laboratory at that point.”

Resurrecting  the extinct back to life

The eggs continued to grow into three-day-old embryos, which scientists refer to as blastulas. They didn’t survive afterwards, unfortunately,  it was confirmed however that these embryos contain genetic information from the gastric-brooding frog. Still, their findings mark a big step forward in research efforts directed towards riving extinct animals. The Newcastle researchers are confident that this is a purely technical, not biological problem and in future attempts they’ll be able to breed a gastric-brooding frog to adulthood.

“This is the first time this technique has been achieved for an extinct species,” conservation biologist Michael Mahony told the Sydney Morning Herald.

The researchers hope that someday they’ll be able to revive a slew of currently extinct species  – a flicker of hope that humanity’s monstrous mistakes might be mended –  such as the woolly mammoth, dodo, Cuban red macaw and New Zealand’s giant moa.

“We are watching Lazarus arise from the dead, step by exciting step,” says the leader of the Lazarus Project team, Professor Mike Archer, of the University of New South Wales, Sydney. “We’ve reactivated dead cells into living ones and revived the extinct frog’s genome in the process. Now we have fresh cryo-preserved cells of the extinct frog to use in future cloning experiments.

“We’re increasingly confident that the hurdles ahead are technological and not biological and that we will succeed. Importantly, we’ve demonstrated already the great promise this technology has as a conservation tool when hundreds of the world’s amphibian species are in catastrophic decline.”

Professor Archer spoke last week at the TEDx DeExtinction event  when the Lazarus Project was publicly discussed for the first time. Archer also expressed his ongoing interest in cloning the extinct Tasmanian tiger, which died off almost a century ago.

how a pig is cloned

Cloned animals aren’t identical – we’re still far from the perfect clone

It is generally believed that a cloned animal is identical to its host from where cells were initially harvested, however this may be wrong. Researchers at the  National Veterinary Institute at the Technical University of Denmark have provided evidence that suggests cloned pigs are just as genetically varied as normally bred pigs, supporting the idea that cloning as it is performed today is far from being perfect. The findings are the latest in a number of similar reports from other Universities, calling for attention to the matter and consideration of this fact when carrying research on cloned animals – especially in the field of medicine.

Currently it is believed that cloned animals are more akin to one another compared to normally bred animals, since they are copies of one another just like identical twins are. This means they have fewer genetic variants, allowing scientists to gather results with fewer specimens at hand. Researchers from Denmark however argue that this isn’t true, and that actually  pig clones are often highly varied and also respond differently than non-clones – which goes against the popular belief.

For their study, the researchers looked at how the immune system of cloned and normally bred pigs responded to obesity. Comparisons were made of so-called acute phase proteins in the blood and of the gene expression of immune factors in three types of adipose tissue and in liver tissue.

Why clones aren’t identical

Their findings suggest that cloned animals have an altered immune system compared to normally bred ones. For instance, the amount of acute phase proteins in the blood increases dramatically during inflammation, however for the clones the levels of some markers were upregulated in relation to the levels in the non-cloned group.

Most importantly, though, it was observed that the variation in the expression of these genetic markers was just as great for cloned pigs as in non-cloned pigs. As an analogy, this is as saying that a quintuplets’ innate immune systems are as different as five regular siblings’. This means cloned animals are indeed different.

how a pig is cloned

It was also observed that cloned animals behave differently from non-cloned animals. For instance cloned pigs were more fearful and anxious than naturally bred pigs. They also weigh less and are often found to have a higher metabolism than non-clones.

Part of the explanation lies in the current methods of cloning, which disrupt the sensitive processes that take place during embryonic development. Then there’s epigenetics – heritable changes in gene expression, which are not caused by changes in the underlying DNA sequence. In other words, you can have two pigs with identical DNA sequences however these cloned animals will be far from being identical since they’ll express completely different genes and thus make them look entirely different.

Hence, researchers have yet to crack the code on how we can control genomic imprinting. Until this happens, the perfect clone is still out of reach. Now, this knowledge is highly important to consider, especially since a lot of scientists working with clones apparently aren’t fully aware of this, according to the Danish researchers.

via  Science Nordic

No, people, scientists are not searching for an ‘adventurous woman to give birth to a Neanderthal baby’

Just write, don’t check

church geneticistThis is again one of those which gets the media all hyped out, without checking the facts; yesterday’s headlines all sounded like this: ‘“Wanted: ‘Adventurous woman’ to give birth to Neanderthal man — Harvard professor seeks mother for cloned cave baby” – newspapers like the Daily Mail were all over it.

“We have lots of Neanderthal parts around the lab. We are creating Neanderthal cells. Let’s say someone has a healthy, normal Neanderthal baby. Well, then, everyone will want to have a Neanderthal kid. Were they superstrong or supersmart? Who knows? But there’s one way to find out.”, said Harvard geneticist George M. Church.

This quote, combined with a healthy dose of wrong translation led to the idea that he was actually searching for a woman to give birth to a cloned, Neanderthal baby; not that this is impossible or anything like this – but this is not what he said.

How it really happened

“The real story here is how these stories have percolated and changed in different ways,” said Church, a Harvard geneticist who helped kick off the Human Genome Project. “I’m sure we’ll get it sorted out eventually.”

neanderthal kid

He blames the confusion on a mistranslated and misinterpreted interview in the German magazine Der Spiegel; basically he said that this might be happening some day in the future, and the media got the idea that he was actually doing it.

“I’m certainly not advocating it,” Church said. “I’m saying, if it is technically possible someday, we need to start talking about it today.

He also explained that e was not even involved in the sequencing of Neanderthal DNA — a project that enabled many people to track their ancestry back to Neanderhtalian days. He also added that in the ~500 interviews he has given in 25 years of work, this is the only one that has spiraled out of control. Admirably though, he wants to make the most of this rather awkward situation:“I’m not going to run away. … I want to use it as an educational moment to talk about journalism and technology.”

“I’m not going to run away. … I want to use it as an educational moment to talk about journalism and technology.”

Morals and Neanderthals

So, for the sake of discussion, let’s analyze the possibility of a Neanderthal baby actually being cloned, brought to this world with a decent chance to survive. Would this be ethical? Would this have any benefits? Yes, it could have several benefits. Neanderthals have bigger brains then us, and it’s possible that as individuals, they could become smarter than us. Even more important, they would provide genetic diversity. As our society gets swallowed up by globalization, we tend to become more and more a monoculture every day – or at least several monocultures – which puts us in a great risk of perishing. However, it would take many, many years until cloned Neanderthals could actually help us here, but it’s a (far fetched) possibility.

But about ethics… It’s really anybody’s word here. Today, we tend to define what’s ethical as what society’s general consensus is, and there’s no general consensus here. So what do you think?

Drug sniffing dogs

Cloned canine drug-sniffers are an amazing success in South Korea. Big leap for animal cloning in the future

Drug sniffing dogs

Just 6 years after the first cloned canine by scientists from South Korea, ironically a country which has dog on the menu, the practice has evolved tremendously and has already provided important results. Some animal specimens are immensily separable from the rest of its kind, whether their smarter, stronger or more productive, so why not have more of these and breed only the best? In South Korea’s Incheon Airport, their best drug dog-sniffers are clones, replicas of  a prized security dog named Chase.

The clones, seven labrador puppies (nick-named “Toppies”, short for “tomorrow puppies”), are currently studied part of an effort to accurately determine whether the cloning of prize animals can deem results. So far, the toppies project has been a complete success since its inception in 2007. Usually, only 30% of the conventionally raised pups manage to pass the drug-sniffing test. The toppies, Chase’s clones, however all passed the test – 100%! Normal dog training costs $40,000 a piece, while the cloning costs $100,000 a pup. As you can see, it’s already more economical feasible to direct efforts towards cloning, everything depends now on public perception.

“The cloning of dog,” investigative journalist John Woestendiek documents in Dog, Inc, “has brought us a step closer to what much of the world fears – human cloning – and it did so not just by advancing the science but by advancing the social acceptance of clones.”

The increasing success of animal cloning will not go unnoticed, and the future will most likely store more and more cases and advances. Scientists have already managed to clone a transgenic cow capable of lactating human protein milk, the best Bessy in the park. The most exiting prospect for cloning in the future is genetic resurrection – the cloning of extinct species. Jurassic Park, anyone?

Dog cloning first began in South Korea in 2005, when Byeong-Chun Lee of Seoul National University presented to the world the first successful attempt of its kind. You might know him from our earlier report of the cloned dog that glows in the dark. Think what you will of him, but despite his eccentricities, he’s the leading global expert in the field. Under his supervision several dogs have been cloned, as well as endangeroured gray wolves.

The future holds promising prospects for cloning, prejudice aside. If you’d like to find out more regarding the drug-sniffing cloned dogs in South Korea, in this documentary video from CNN which follows four year old Tutu, one of the best dogs at the Incheon Airport, and the project’s exploits.

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China clones pig national-hero who survived catastrophic 2008 quake

In 2008 a deadly earthquake hit the Sichuan province of China killing tens of thousands and living millions homeless – it was the most devastating natural disaster in China’s recent history. From the among the rubles of the quake, however, emerged a survivor-pig which made him an instant national hero at the time. Now, Chinese scientists have cloned the super-pig as a means of better understanding what genetic treats made him so tough.

Six piglets have been produced with DNA identical to Zhu Jiangqiang, or “Strong-Willed Pig” as he’s also called in the national press, despite of the fact that the pig was castrated, which is why the cloning process began in the first place, and is five years old (60 in pig years). Zhu Jiangqiang did not only survive a magnitude 8 earthquake in May 2008, but also managed to stay alive trapped beneath the rubles for 36 days only by drinking rainwater and chewing charcoal.

The wonderful pig surprised us again,” said Du Yutao, the head of the cloning project, who was very pleased of the results of the cloning of the six piglets, who very much resemble their father, each bearing the same birth mark on their foreheads. The genetic offsprings’ faith is still not certain, but from what has been disclosed so far it seems the piglets will be sent in pairs to a museum and a genetic institute.