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'Super clone' sniffer dogs: Coming to an airport near you?

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A breed of 'super clone' sniffer dogs is in action at Incheon Airport
  • DNA taken from golden Labrador Retriever with "legendary" nose
  • Professor behind project also makes clones of pets and endangered wolves

Incheon, South Korea (CNN) -- A small army of elite, highly trained clones are sent on a mission to root out drugs and ammunition from the city. Every few hours they report back to their masters, to whom they've been devoted since birth.

But this isn't the set of a low-budget sci-fi flick; it's the departure lounge of South Korea's Incheon Airport, where seven "super clone" sniffer-dogs have been dispatched in the war against contraband luggage.

The pack of golden Labrador Retrievers are all genetically identical to "Chase," whose legendary snout kept him top of Incheon's drug-detection rankings right up until his retirement in 2007.

But now after years of training, the new class is following in their genetic donor's paw-prints, consistently outperforming the rest of South Korea's naturally born sniffers in the hunt for heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines.

Interactive: A day in the life of an airport city

They are the work of Professor Byeong-chun Lee, who established his reputation in 2005 as the driving force behind Snuppy (an amalgam of Seoul National University puppy), the world's first ever dog clone.

"The officers in Korean Custom Service read our dog-cloning article and they suggested the project to us," recalls Lee.

Indeed, Korean customs had a problem on their hands. Only three out of every 10 selectively bred sniffer dogs that it trained --- at a cost of about $40,140 each -- had the nostrils and the discipline for the job.

Scientifically all the animals, including humans, can be cloned
Professor Byeong-chun Lee

Although the seven Labrador clones cost upwards of $100,000 each, every single one of them made the grade.

But Lee refuses to take all the credit: "I think half of the ability comes from the genetic background and half comes from the training," he said.

A history of clones
Reproductive cloning creates animals that are genetically identical to an existing one. Since 1997, scientists have cloned 17 mammal species, including:

Sheep, 1997: Dolly makes hits the news as the first clone of an adult mammal

Mouse, 1998: Researchers in Hawaii create 50 clones of a single mouse

Bull, 1999: Cloning a bull leads to a debate about the safety of milk and meat from clones

Pig, 2000: Five cloned piglets open the way to cloning animals to grow organs

Gaur, 2001: A wild ox becomes the first clone of an endangered species

Cat, 2002: A company formed to reproduce cherished pets clones the first cat

Horse, 2005: It's the first clone whose surrogate mother is also a genetic donor

Lending weight, if it were needed, to the claim that aptitude is indeed a balance of nature and nurture, the dogs still display variations in performance despite their identical genes.

And leader of the pack is Tutu. "Last year, he won a medal for detecting the most drugs at the ICN (Incheon) airport," boasts his long-time handler Park Ji-yong.

Like his septuplet brothers, Tutu began training for the job at the age one and now, as a mature four year-old, works five to six hourly shifts a day.

"He's very active and energetic...He's kind of tough...and he only likes me which makes me feel good," beams Ji-yong.

But it's not just drug-mules and meth-addicts that need fear the arrival of this sniffing super-breed. Lee's next clone will be a high-performance "quarantine dog" -- gifted with an enhanced capacity for detecting the presence of disease in humans.

Lee says that, due to the high number of travelers passing through Incheon, the airport has experienced problems with the spread of infectious diseases, "so the Korean government have asked us to clone some quarantine sniffing dogs"

Beyond the airport barriers, Professor Lee spends his time cloning a variety of other canine breeds, each with a specific purpose in mind.

"Some clients want to replicate their own pets" says Lee. In other cases, the scientist works in conservation, creating identical copies of endangered animals.

"Wolves are endangered species in Korea, especially grey wolves. We collected cells from the ear of wolves...and transported to surrogate dogs and finally we produced cloned wolves" says Lee.

So, now that he's cloned man's best friend, are there any plans for man himself?

"Scientifically all the animals, including humans, can be cloned, but I have never thought about (it). It's illegal and it's an ethical problem."

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