Of the two beagles playing inside a lab located north of downtown Beijing, one – puppy Longlong – looks like the offspring of the older beagle, Apple.
But he’s not.
Longlong is Apple’s clone.
Mi Jidong is the General Manager of the Beijing biotech company behind the clones, Sino Gene.
“These two dogs, Longlong and Apple, are 99.9 per cent the same. Longlong’s birth is a breakthrough in terms of genetic modification and cloning and its application to dogs.”
Two other puppy clones, Qiqi and Nuonuo, were born a month later.
Sino Gene says the dogs will be used to study gene-based diseases – such as heart disease and diabetes.
The reason this breakthrough is so significant is because dogs – though they may not look like it – are more genetically similar to humans than other animals.
Apple’s DNA was altered so he would have higher levels of blood lipids – a trait associated with high cholesterol, says Mi Jidong.
“This will be helpful in the development of new medicines and studying the mechanism of certain diseases.”
The company also wants to produce ‘super dogs’ for police search and rescue teams: puppies born with a superior sense of smell and intelligence.
It says cloning a genetically-edited animal makes that more efficient.
But animal welfare groups are concerned.
Peter Li is the China Policy expert of Humane Society International and based in the United States.
“Cloning has many problems. Large numbers of animals are used as donors and surrogate mothers. But the success rate is very small. So it’s a huge waste of animal life.”
Mr Li says the experimentation has also raised ethical questions around cloning.
“If we see cloned animals as a testing object, I wonder how soon this work will be applied to humans.”
Fabiene Delerue is an animal geneticist at the University of NSW.
He believes the breakthrough is impressive, but says the lack of transparency in Chinese labs is worrying.
“Doing it on animals doesn’t mean it can translate with the same outcome in humans, but obviously once you’ve allowed this technology to do something it may well be more complicated to say no, you should not use it for something else.”
But Zhao Nanyuan, a retired professor from Beijng’s Tsinghua University, believes western ethical standards hold back scientific progress.
“I’m sure other countries will lag behind china when it comes to human genetic research because of their concerns.”
Apple and these puppies may be the world’s first genetically modified canine clones, but they’re probably not the last.