Learning Outcomes

  • Recognize technologies used for molecular, cellular, and reproductive cloning

Molecular Cloning

In general, the word “cloning” means the creation of a perfect replica; however, in biology, the re-creation of a whole organism is referred to as “reproductive cloning.” Long before attempts were made to clone an entire organism, researchers learned how to reproduce desired regions or fragments of the genome, a process that is referred to as molecular cloning.

Cloning small fragments of the genome allows for the manipulation and study of specific genes (and their protein products), or noncoding regions in isolation. A plasmid (also called a vector) is a small circular DNA molecule that replicates independently of the chromosomal DNA of microorganisms such as E. coli. In cloning, the plasmid molecules can be used to provide a “folder” in which to insert a desired DNA fragment. Plasmids are usually introduced into a bacterial host for proliferation. In the bacterial context, the fragment of DNA from the human genome (or the genome of another organism that is being studied) is referred to as foreign DNA, or a transgene, to differentiate it from the DNA of the bacterium, which is called the host DNA.

Plasmids occur naturally in bacterial populations (such as Escherichia coli) and have genes that can contribute favorable traits to the organism, such as antibiotic resistance (the ability to be unaffected by antibiotics). Plasmids have been repurposed and engineered as vectors for molecular cloning and the large-scale production of important reagents, such as insulin and human growth hormone. An important feature of plasmid vectors is the ease with which a foreign DNA fragment can be introduced via the multiple cloning site (MCS). The MCS is a short DNA sequence containing multiple sites that can be cut with different commonly available restriction endonucleases. Restriction endonucleases recognize specific DNA sequences and cut them in a predictable manner; they are naturally produced by bacteria as a defense mechanism against foreign DNA. Many restriction endonucleases make staggered cuts in the two strands of DNA, such that the cut ends have a 2- or 4-base single-stranded overhang. Because these overhangs are capable of annealing with complementary overhangs, these are called “sticky ends.” Addition of an enzyme called DNA ligase permanently joins the DNA fragments via phosphodiester bonds. In this way, any DNA fragment generated by restriction endonuclease cleavage can be spliced between the two ends of a plasmid DNA that has been cut with the same restriction endonuclease (Figure 1).

Recombinant DNA Molecules

Plasmids with foreign DNA inserted into them are called recombinant DNA molecules because they are created artificially and do not occur in nature. They are also called chimeric molecules because the origin of different parts of the molecules can be traced back to different species of biological organisms or even to chemical synthesis. Proteins that are expressed from recombinant DNA molecules are called recombinant proteins. Not all recombinant plasmids are capable of expressing genes. The recombinant DNA may need to be moved into a different vector (or host) that is better designed for gene expression. Plasmids may also be engineered to express proteins only when stimulated by certain environmental factors, so that scientists can control the expression of the recombinant proteins.

View an animation of recombination in cloning from the DNA Learning Center.

Cellular Cloning

Unicellular organisms, such as bacteria and yeast, naturally produce clones of themselves when they replicate asexually by binary fission; this is known as cellular cloning. The nuclear DNA duplicates by the process of mitosis, which creates an exact replica of the genetic material.

Practice Question

Figure illustrates the steps in molecular cloning into a plasmid called a cloning vector. The vector has a lacZ gene, which is necessary for metabolizing lactose, and a gene for ampicillin resistance. Within the lacZ gene are restriction sites, sequences of DNA cut by a particular restriction enzyme. The DNA to be cloned and the plasmid are both cut by the same restriction enzyme. The restriction enzyme staggers the cuts on the two strands of DNA, such that each strand has an overhanging single-stranded bit of DNA. On one strand, the sequence of the overhang is GATC, and on the other, the sequence is CTAG. These two sequences are complementary, and allow the fragment of foreign DNA to anneal with the plasmid. An enzyme called ligase joins the two pieces together. The ligated plasmid is then transformed into a bacterial strain that lacks the lacZ gene and is sensitive to the antibiotic ampicillin. The bacteria are plated on media containing ampicillin, so that only bacteria that have taking up the plasmid (which has an ampicillin resistance gene) will grow. The media also contains X-gal, a chemical that is metabolized in the same way as lactose. Plasmids lacking the insert are able to metabolize X-gal, releasing a dye from X-gal that turns the colony blue. Plasmids with the insert have a disrupted lacZ gene and produce white colonies. Thus, colonies containing the cloned DNA can be selected on the basis of color.

Figure 1. This diagram shows the steps involved in molecular cloning.

You are working in a molecular biology lab and, unbeknownst to you, your lab partner left the foreign genomic DNA that you are planning to clone on the lab bench overnight instead of storing it in the freezer. As a result, it was degraded by nucleases, but still used in the experiment. The plasmid, on the other hand, is fine. What results would you expect from your molecular cloning experiment?

  1. There will be no colonies on the bacterial plate.
  2. There will be blue colonies only.
  3. There will be blue and white colonies.
  4. The will be white colonies only.

Reproductive Cloning

Reproductive cloning is a method used to make a clone or an identical copy of an entire multicellular organism. Most multicellular organisms undergo reproduction by sexual means, which involves genetic hybridization of two individuals (parents), making it impossible for generation of an identical copy or a clone of either parent. Recent advances in biotechnology have made it possible to artificially induce asexual reproduction of mammals in the laboratory.

Parthenogenesis, or “virgin birth,” occurs when an embryo grows and develops without the fertilization of the egg occurring; this is a form of asexual reproduction. An example of parthenogenesis occurs in species in which the female lays an egg and if the egg is fertilized, it is a diploid egg and the individual develops into a female; if the egg is not fertilized, it remains a haploid egg and develops into a male. The unfertilized egg is called a parthenogenic, or virgin, egg. Some insects and reptiles lay parthenogenic eggs that can develop into adults.

Sexual reproduction requires two cells; when the haploid egg and sperm cells fuse, a diploid zygote results. The zygote nucleus contains the genetic information to produce a new individual. However, early embryonic development requires the cytoplasmic material contained in the egg cell. This idea forms the basis for reproductive cloning. Therefore, if the haploid nucleus of an egg cell is replaced with a diploid nucleus from the cell of any individual of the same species (called a donor), it will become a zygote that is genetically identical to the donor. Somatic cell nuclear transfer is the technique of transferring a diploid nucleus into an enucleated egg. It can be used for either therapeutic cloning or reproductive cloning.

The first cloned animal was Dolly, a sheep who was born in 1996. The success rate of reproductive cloning at the time was very low. Dolly lived for seven years and died of respiratory complications (Figure 2). There is speculation that because the cell DNA belongs to an older individual, the age of the DNA may affect the life expectancy of a cloned individual. Since Dolly, several animals such as horses, bulls, and goats have been successfully cloned, although these individuals often exhibit facial, limb, and cardiac abnormalities. There have been attempts at producing cloned human embryos as sources of embryonic stem cells, sometimes referred to as cloning for therapeutic purposes. Therapeutic cloning produces stem cells to attempt to remedy detrimental diseases or defects (unlike reproductive cloning, which aims to reproduce an organism). Still, therapeutic cloning efforts have met with resistance because of bioethical considerations.

Practice Question

To clone Dolly the sheep, a Scottish Blackface sheep was used as a cytoplasmic donor. Eggs from this sheep were extracted, and the nucleus removed. A Finn-Dorset sheep was used as the nuclear donor. Nuclei were extracted from mammary cells, and direct electric current was used to fuse the nuclear DNA with the donor egg. The egg was then allowed to divide to the blastocyst stage, in which a sphere of cells contains a cluster of cells on one side. The blastocyst was implanted in a surrogate mother, resulting in Dolly the sheep.

Figure 2. Dolly the sheep was the first mammal to be cloned. To create Dolly, the nucleus was removed from a donor egg cell. The nucleus from a second sheep was then introduced into the cell, which was allowed to divide to the blastocyst stage before being implanted in a surrogate mother. (credit: modification of work by “Squidonius”/Wikimedia Commons)

Do you think Dolly was a Finn-Dorset or a Scottish Blackface sheep?

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