The cloner

Name: Dr Graham Bulfield
Institution: Roslin, Edinburgh
Field: Cloning

The Roslin Institute is laid out in the rolling countryside south of Edinburgh and has an air of down-to-earth practicality about it. It would also be fair to say that until July 1996 it did not rank very high in the order of the world's great research laboratories.

But three years ago this summer, Dolly came and everything changed. Dolly was a triumph of genetic manipulation - a sheep that was born after cells from the udder belonging to a six-year-old Finn Dorset ewe were placed in the nucleus of an unfertilised egg that had been stripped of all its genetic material. Dolly was the exact genetic replica - a clone - of the nameless Finn Dorset, and in terms of the history of genetics she was a sensation.

Roslin is now firmly on the gene map and Dolly's creators, Ian Wilmut and Keith Campbell, have been propelled to dizzy heights of recognition and acclaim. But standing back from the fuss was the director of the Roslin Institute, Dr Graham Bulfield. He knew - as did everyone at the Roslin - that the really big advance had occurred in July 1995 with the birth of Megan and Morag, two lambs that had been cloned from the same embryo whose cells had been grown in the lab.

The ingenious thing that virtually no one outside science understood was how the Roslin team succeeded in making Dolly. Cloning is not just a matter of taking a cell and slotting it into a stripped-out egg: you have to make sure that the cell does not go into a state of differentiation, which means that it begins to specialise and the majority of its 70,000 genes are switched off. Wilmut achieved this by putting the cells into a resting or acquiescent state called G Zero. They are not sure why, but this suspension allowed them to transfer the cells into the nucleus of the eggs and avoid differentiation. To put it crudely, rather than producing just bits of sheep, the cell maintained its potential to produce the whole sheep.

Bulfield began making this point the moment he sat down opposite me in Roslin canteen with a plate of shepherd's pie. I asked what it was like being geneticist at the moment. Was there a sense of accelerating revelation? 'Yes. Biology is in a way where chemistry was at the end of the 19th century when people were discovering the elements and putting them on the periodic table. It's that important; we are putting together the elements but there 70,000 of them and they all intereact with each other.

The nature of biology is changing. It has been a descriptive science for most of this century. Now it's becoming a predictive science and that is very important to humanity.' Cloning has big implications for humanity, although perhaps not as disastrous as many have forecast. How did Bulfield, who of course is responsible for all the work at Roslin, feel about these? 'Put it this way, we always take interviews. If we don't there is just a vacuum of knowledge. It's not our job to advise on ethics of cloning, but to tell people about the possibilities that our work is producing. We tell people that this piece of science can be used for good or for bad. But it has no moral content whatsoever. Our job is just to communicate what we have discovered - that's all.'

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