If you’ve ever loved and lost a pet, chances are you wished you could have them back. If you’ve got $100,00 and you’re ethically okay with the invasiveness and wastefulness of pumping multiple dog surrogates full of hormones to get a replica of your pooch that’s about 85 percent the same, a disgraced South Korean doctor has got a deal for you.
When a dog was first cloned, in 2005—a scientific achievement that Time hailed as one of the breakthrough inventions of the year—it took more than 100 borrowed wombs, and more than 1,000 embryos. “Surrogate mothers are a little bit like The Handmaid’s Tale,” says Jessica Pierce, an ethicist and dog expert who teaches at the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Colorado. “It’s a canine version of reproductive machines.”
Yet here in the operating room at Sooam, everyone is all smiles—especially the veterinarian representing the customer who paid for Clone 1108. A slender man whose employer is Middle Eastern royalty, he stands in scrubs next to Dr. Hwang, posing for photos with the newborn pup. It’s a moment that has become almost as routine as it is lucrative for Sooam: over the past decade, the company has cloned more than 1,000 dogs, at up to $100,000 per birth. “Yes, cloning has become a business,” says Wang. If a dog owner provides DNA from a deceased pet quickly enough—usually within five days of its death—Sooam promises a speedy replacement. “If the cells from the dead dog are not compromised,” Wang explains, “we guarantee you will get a dog within five months.”
The process itself, fine-tuned over years of trial and error, is known as “somatic cell nuclear transfer.” It starts with an egg from a donor dog. Using a high-powered microscope, scientists poke a micro-hole in the egg and remove the nucleus, where the DNA is housed. They then replace the nucleus with a cell from the dog that is being cloned—usually from its skin or inside its cheek. Finally, the hybrid egg is blasted with a short burst of electricity to fuse the cells and begin cell division. The embryo is then imbedded in a surrogate’s womb. If the transfer takes, a puppy will be born some 60 days later.