How Cloning a Sheep Set Off a Sci Fi Panic

In 1997, Scottish scientists announced they had cloned a sheep and named her Dolly, and sent waves of future shock around the world that continue to shape frontiers of science today.

“Scientists clone adult sheep,” read the headline splashed across the front of a British newspaper in the winter of 1997. Soon, the rest of the world would meet Dolly, the product of a team of Scottish scientists who took a mammary cell from an adult sheep, fused it to another sheep’s unfertilized egg and created an identical twin.

A rush of media attention gave way, almost instantaneously, to speculation and anxiety about what this new discovery meant for man’s ability to manipulate biology – a controversy compounded by a brewing debate over the ethics of embryonic stem cell work.

Dolly’s story explores the friction between science and politics, and what happens when a breakthrough is so tangible and profound that it provokes both our highest hopes and greatest fears.

For teachers
  • Producer: Andrew Fredericks
  • Producer: Matthew Spolar
  • Editor: David Feinberg
  • Editor: Andrew Fredericks

For Educators


This 13-minute video shows students both the scientific and cultural context surrounding Dolly, the world’s first clone of an adult mammal. The video clarifies the scientific process that led to Dolly’s creation, explores how media and political leaders responded to the birth with surprise and fear, and how Dolly influenced the ongoing debate over the use of human embryos in stem cell research. Useful for lessons focused on gene expression or biotechnology, the video can be used to initiate discussion or debate about bioethics and epigenetics.

Background reading

In February 1997 the cloning of a sheep sent shock waves around the globe and triggered fears of overreach by scientists. As the first animal cloned from an adult cell, Dolly’s birth was a scientific accomplishment that was compared to putting a man on the moon.

But it also raised fears that science was going too far – that it might only be a matter of time before scientists would be able to bioengineer anything from designer babies to endangered species.

That was certainly not the intent of the Scottish scientist Ian Wilmut and his team at the Roslin Institute outside of Edinburgh. They had been working for years to find a process to use clone cells in developing drugs and therapies to fight deadly diseases. They saw the cloning of Dolly as a step on that road.

Once Dolly was born, the team tried to keep the birth secret until they could publish their findings in a scientific journal, but the news leaked out, shocking the world

The achievement soon gave way to worries that scientists had crossed an ethical line. Those fears led President Clinton to ban the use of federal funds for cloning humans. But the public apprehension turned out to be misplaced; the cloning process was far more complicated than was widely understood.

Lesson Plan 1: Biology: Dolly, the Cloned Sheep

Students will learn the scientific and cultural importance of Dolly, the first animal to be cloned from an adult cell, who became the most famous animal in the history of biotechnology.

  • How scientists created the first clone of an adult mammal.
  • How public and political anxiety over cloning in the late 1990s led to decades of debate over the use of human embryos.
  • How scientific research has been influenced by this debate.
Essential questions
  • What was embryologist Bill Ritchie’s procedural method for cloning an adult mammal? How many times did he have to repeat the procedure before an embryo was carried to term?
  • Several decades before Dolly’s birth, what other animal had been cloned?
  • How did the news media and politicians respond to news of Dolly’s existence? How did President Clinton respond?
  • What caused Dolly’s death? How old was she?
  • What factors have slowed or inhibited research with human embryos?
  • How did the Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka sidestep the ethical issues surrounding the use of human embryos in stem cell research?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.1:Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.11-12.2:Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; summarize complex concepts, processes, or information presented in a text by paraphrasing them in simpler but still accurate terms.
  • Next Generation Science Standards
    • HS-LS Heredity: Inheritance and Variation of TraitsAsk questions to clarify relationships about the role of DNA and chromosomes in coding the instructions for characteristic traits passed on from parents to offspring.
  • AP Biology
    • Topic 6.8: BiotechnologySkill 1.C: Explain biological concepts in applied contexts.