One newspaper described it as a “birth in a barn that shook the world”, as TV news crews rushed to rural Scotland and the then American President Bill Clinton demanded to be kept abreast of events.
When Dolly the Sheep was born on Friday, July 5, 1996, her arrival not only caused great excitement, it also opened a Pandora’s Box of ethical questions.
This Horizon documentary combines privileged access and never-before-seen archive to tell the story of how a tiny band of boffins on a farm in the hills above Edinburgh cracked the holy grail of modern science.
We hear from the scientists originally trying to develop better methods for producing genetically modified livestock, who, despite being acutely aware of the public’s suspicion into their work, eventually created the clone.
Dolly was the first mammal to have been successfully cloned using a cell taken from an adult of its own species.
DNA from the mammary gland of a six-year-old Finn Dorset ewe was injected into an unfertilised egg from a Scottish Blackface ewe that had its own DNA removed – creating an embryo.
The test tube sheep was ‘concocted’ by embryologists Karen Walker and Bill Ritchie, working alongside biologist Keith Campbell at the Roslin Institute animal sciences research centre.
Karen and Bill became known as Dolly’s mum and dad, with Karen keeping test tube Dolly warm in her bra on the way from the farm to the institute.
Named after country singer Dolly Parton, the sheep was born to her Scottish Blackface surrogate mother at the institute’s nearby Dryden Farm.
It was only when her white face and furry legs emerged – markings unique to the Finn Dorset sheep – that they knew the experiment had been a success.
Up to that point, there had been 277 attempts to clone Dolly and there were many miscarriages.
Like a real dad, Bill leapt with joy when Dolly took her first steps. “I got very attached to her,” he said.
“I’d take people down to the farm to see her and I would shout, ‘Morning Dolly.’
“Without fail, I’d get a ‘baaah’ back, so she at least knew her name although she might also have been excited to be getting fed.”
Karen added: “Dolly was like the Naomi Campbell of the sheep world. She was photogenic and would rise to the occasion when visiting scientists arrived.”
The team’s long term vision was to develop treatments for heart disease, Parkinson’s Disease and rheumatism.
However, their goals and methods raised concerns from some church and anti-abortion groups.
They wanted the technology banned but, following strong lobbying by the medical research community, parliament permitted therapeutic cloning but banned the cloning of humans.
In the 25 years since Dolly’s birth, a cloning industry has paved the way for medical breakthroughs including stem cell treatment.
In 2018, Sir Ian, now 76, announced he had Parkinson’s, one of the many diseases he hoped Dolly might help cure.
Karen said: “For me, I do feel disappointed that Dolly’s birth hasn’t led to the amazing cures I hoped it would.”
Dolly gave birth to several lambs but developed severe arthritis and a lung disease that led to her being put down in 2003.
“She did get quite fat because there were so many people visiting her and they would always give her treats,” Bill said.
A quarter of a century on, neither the hopes treatments for debilitating diseases nor the fears of designer babies and a dystopian future have been realised.
Dolly’s birth changed scientific thinking forever – but the question still remains: what is her legacy?
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