Four Years After Cloning, Drug-Sniffing Dogs Celebrate Remarkable Success in South Korean Airport

toppiesSome dogs are one in a million…so why not clone a million of them? Dogs are a staple in airports around the world, helping detect narcotics, explosives, and other banned substances. Incheon Airport in South Korea is no different in that respect, only some of their best drug-sniffing dogs are clones. Copied from a prized security dog named Chase, seven cloned Labrador puppies (nick-named “Toppies”, short for “tomorrow puppies”) are part of an ongoing study on how genetic reproductions of prized work animals may revolutionize their use in the field. Since its inception in 2007, the project has been a huge success. While only 30% of normal dogs pass the tests to become drug-sniffers, all of Chase’s clones made the grade. CNN recently covered the best of the clones, Tutu, and his ongoing duties at Incheon Airport. Watch the super sniffing dog in action in the video below. Human cloning is a hot-topic issue, but the power of producing genetically identical animals doesn’t get the press it deserves. With clear advantages and fewer ethical hurdles, animal cloning is set to become a very influential technology in the years ahead. Get ready, the Toppies are coming.

The first dogs were cloned in South Korea in 2005, and one of the two leading scientists of that project, Byeong-Chun Lee of Seoul National University, remains the leading global expert in the field. To date he has cloned dozens of dogs and a handful of grey wolves, an endangered species in South Korea. The Toppies represent a fulfillment of the promise of Lee’s vision for animal clones: these aren’t just designer pets, they’re tools for a better tomorrow. By leveraging uniquely fit genetic code, like that of Chase, Lee has helped create a dog that is better suited to the job humans want it to perform. As you’ll see in the following clip from CNN, four year old Tutu is not only the best drug-sniffing dog at Incheon Airport, he’s a happy puppy, too.

Success rates for detection dog training vary by location, but can be as low as 10%. Incheon security estimates that about 30% of their dogs are able to be used, with training costing around $40,000 a piece. Meanwhile, every single cloned dog passed the test to become a drug-sniffer, though one was never employed due to the other reasons. That’s a 100% success rate more or less. According to CNN, each Toppy has cost about $100,000 to produce, although original estimates for the program were closer to $240,000 for the entire litter (according to BBC News). Either way, there’s a monetary advantage to the clones.

Future plans for Toppies include expanding their use into detecting illness. Communicable diseases coming into South Korea through airports like Incheon cost the nation millions each year, and quarantining may reduce that threat considerably. As we’ve discussed before, Lee has been active in expanding his research, cloning dogs with genes that allowed them to glow in the dark. He’s also demonstrated that he can use cow ovum to increase the success rates of his dog cloning, and has expanded his work to include many different breeds, including beagles, labradors, and Afghan hounds. In 2009 his group cloned Trakr, a German shepherd that helped find survivors in the ruins of the World Trade Center. He may even be able to help save gray wolves simply through selective cloning. His work with cloning and genetically altering canines may boost research in human illness, as much as it could change security in airports. Make no mistake, Lee has shown that dog cloning is not only getting better, it’s getting more important.

Which is good, because for a few years there was a profound worry that South Korea’s dog cloning was in serious jeopardy. Lee’s original collaborator, Hwang Woo-Suk, was convicted on charges related to him faking data on cloning. In fact, if it wasn’t for rigorous genetic testing scientists probably would have discounted the original 2005 success in cloning a canine. Even the Toppies have faced scrutiny due to Hwang’s shadow on the project.

Despite the controversy, Lee’s work with canine clones is highly regarded and his reputation seems to be growing even stronger.

With so much success with canines, what’s next for animal cloning? Pretty much everything you can imagine. We’ve already seen how transgenic cloned cows could produce milk with human proteins. Extinct species may be brought back (including the woolly mammoth). There’s a good chance cloning will impact livestock raised for meat as genepools are already very narrow due to highly competitive selective breeding. The Toppies further indicate that animals may be bred not just for physical traits and goods, but for their behavior. Some dogs have been proven to be able to sniff out cancer, maybe cloning can turn that into a viable technology for use in medical labs. The possibilities here are vast. And while there is some opposition, especially in eating cloned animals, this simply isn’t a topic that is stirring up the public. Many mammals are cloned now on a regular basis. As we’ve seen with sheep, each year brings improvements such that the technology for animal cloning gets cheaper and more reliable at a steady pace. Eventually it will get cheap enough to be used in a wide range of applications.

So forget human cloning. That technology will show up when it does. Animal cloning is here now, and it’s getting ready to make its impact. Don’t forget that a great many of these copied animals are used to explore/leverage genetic alterations as well. The clones are coming, my friends, but they aren’t Sarahs or Steves, they’re transgenic Fidos and genetically enhanced Bessies.

Welcome to the jungle.

[image credit: Korea Times]

[Sources: Seoul National University, CNN, Scientific American]

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