Rapid changes in clonal lines: the death of a ‘sacred cow’


Corresponding author. E-mail: hugh.loxdale@bbsrc.ac.uk


It is well established that asexually reproducing viruses and prokaryotes mutate rapidly. In contrast, the eukaryotic clone is often still treated as if it is genetically homogeneous within and between populations, i.e. that it is assumed to show genetic fidelity. However, such fidelity has rarely been tested empirically using the range of high-resolution molecular markers now available, culminating with direct sequencing of the DNA. If such a biological entity as a ‘clone’ really did exist, it would be a fantastic entity, differing from everything else known in biology, i.e. it would possess a population mean but no variance for any particular trait. It would not be amenable to selection and adaptive variation and would thus be unchanging in time and space. In this paper, we argue that the general acceptance of clonal fidelity is a scientific convenience, since the rate of asexual reproduction of eukaryotes is not as fast as that of bacteria and hence it is easier to accept fidelity as a ‘fact’ rather than test for it. We propose that part of the acceptance of fidelity may have a cultural basis and thereby is a kind of ‘pre-Darwinian relic’. Instead, a clonal genotype is perhaps largely a function of marker resolution, i.e. dependent on the number and type of markers employed. If this is so and were enough of the genome explored, perhaps each individual within a clone would be found to differ genetically at particular regions of the chromosomes. The question of what constitutes a clone is not just a semantic one and impacts directly on recent attempts to understand and produce ‘artificial’ clones, especially of mammals. New research is already confirming that mutations and epigenetic influences play a crucial role in the success of cloning attempts. © 2003 The Linnean Society of London. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2003, 79, 3–16.