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Happy Birthday to Dolly the Sheep, the First Cloned Adult Mammal

Also: the birth of contemporary biotech paranoia.
Image: Toni Barro/Wiki

Biotech paranoia hardly began with GMOs. On July 5, 1996, Dolly the Sheep was born in Scotland. Formally unveiled to the public nearly a year later after an aggressive campaign of secrecy, Dolly ushered in a new strain of bio-anxiety and outright pseudoscientific paranoia, despite being roundly celebrated by the scientific community. One media commentator likened it to the development of the atom bomb or the "Moon rocket," while others wrung their hands about the implications of "playing god." Much of it sounds awfully familiar—and not in a good way.

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While scientists looked forward to a new era of clone-based therapies and pharmaceutical development—you know, saving lives—the public conversation steered toward thoughts of human clones: immortal genetic selves, Hitler assembly lines, clone wars. President Clinton soon issued a directive banning the usage of federal funds for any activities related to the cloning of humans. And just a couple of years later, George W Bush banned most embryonic stem cell research, which was quickly exported to more welcoming countries overseas.

Dolly the Sheep died six years later (in 2003) of lung cancer, living about half the lifespan of a typical Finn Dorset sheep. It was the end of a series of health issues, including arthritis, that indicated premature aging, though this idea has been rebufffed. "Since Dolly, other mammals—cows, rabbits, mice, cats, goats and pigs—have also been cloned," a Nature obituary for Dolly noted. "But the process of genetic reprogramming seems too complex and haphazard to control tightly, and its success rate has not improved much since Dolly's day—she was the sole surviving adult from 277 attempts."

Dolly's taxidermied remains can be viewed at the National Museum of Scotland.