A US company offering a pet cloning service has successfully cloned two cats: Tabouli and Baba Ganoush. BBC News Online's Maggie Shiels is the first British journalist to see them. Here, she tells of meeting the copy cats.
To most people, the two kittens running around the top floor of a San Francisco mansion might not seem like anything special. But to Lou Hawthorne, the owner of this house, Tabouli and Baba Ganoush represent a major scientific breakthrough.
The cats were born through the technique of chromatin transfer
And as the CEO of a cloning company, these cloned kittens also spell dollars and cents.
Genetic Savings and Clone (GSC), which is based in Sausalito, just north of San Francisco, is the world's first firm to go commercial and offer the public the chance to clone their cats and dogs.
Five cat owners have already signed up at a cost of $50,000 to have their pets copied. All of that moved closer to becoming a reality just eight weeks ago when Tabouli and Baba Ganoush were born after being cloned from a one-year-old female Bengal cat.
This weekend CEO Lou Hawthorne went public with his unusual offspring and BBC News Online was among the first to see the newborn kittens, which he describes as being cut from the same cloth as their donor mother.
"The two girls are identical. They are a clone of my son's cat and I couldn't be prouder. They are beautiful and healthy and strong and feisty just like their genetic donor Tahini," Mr Hawthorne said.
This is an important step in the process for the company that was involved in the cloning of the world's first cat three years ago. CC, short for Carbon Copy or copycat, was a calico cat whose colouring and disposition were different from those of her genetic mother.
GSC's chief credits a new cloning method for the uncanny likeness that the kittens have to mother Tahini. Mr Hawthorne says chromatin transfer, which they hold an exclusive licence for in pet cloning, is safer and more efficient that traditional methods.
"The births of Tabouli and Baba Ganoush are very significant in that they are the first pet clones produced by CT or chromatin transfer which is a new and very advanced cloning technique," Mr Hawthorne explained.
"[It is] much more advanced than the technique used to produce the world's first cloned cat CC and Dolly the sheep, the world's first cloned animal. So, these births are the first instance of a consumer grade cloning technology."
The kittens are described as a turning point for cloning
Critics say even though the kittens appear normal, they could have hidden defects. David Magnus, co-director of the Centre of Biomedical Ethics at Stanford told the San Francisco Chronicle: "These cats may well have curtailed lives. The cells themselves [used for cloning] could have age problems."
Mr Hawthorne does not deny the limits of cloning and says they will return clients money or offer another clone for free if the cloned pets have any genetic defects.
But he says the results they have achieved with Tabouli and Baba Ganoush is a happy day for their clients and a turning point for pet cloning.
"The whole world needs to go beyond gene sequencing and start looking at gene expression levels and that is where chromatin transfer is so much better than nuclear transfer, or NT.
"Gene expression levels translate first into the health of the animal because all of the genes are expressing at the right levels which results in the right cell types being formed correctly so that the lung tissue forms and behaves like lung tissue should. And the same with all the other organs in the animal's body.
"It also translates into resemblance in terms of the coat colourisation, the size of the animal, the shape of its bones and its face pattern," says Mr Hawthorne.
Tabouli and Baba Ganoush are said to be strong, healthy and feisty
GSC aims to deliver two more cloned kittens from its staff in the next couple of weeks. After that it will start embryo transfers of clients' animals in the hope of producing clones before Christmas.
Lou Hawthorne warns that the company will produce unique newborn copies, not full grown exact replicas.
"You can never step in the same river twice so experience is going to shape the development of the clones just as it shaped the development of the donor. But this is going to be the closest reproduction imaginable and possible of these remarkable animals," he said.
Kyra Ingemansson is a cat handler helping look after the kittens who says they are a real joy to be with.
"I think we have this image of science fiction cloning like the Frankenstein creature.
The technique faithfully reproduces coat patterns and colours
"It's going to be something of a monster and then when you see these little gems, I think this is science at its best. They are wonderful and they are precious," she said.
While the two cloned kittens have not been subjected to any independent testing or traditional scientific review process, Mr Hawthorne says he has no problem with providing the DNA samples necessary to prove the birthlines
of Tabouli and Baba Ganoush.
Besides he says from an economic point of view, it would be foolish to try and hoodwink people.
"We will submit for peer review the data confirming these are clones. The donor Tahini is still alive. But when you take a look at these kittens you will know they are either clones or the most brilliant case of selective breeding.
Cats and dogs
"In the bigger picture it would be silly for us to monkey around with our reputation," Mr Hawthorne said.
That reputation will continue to be under scrutiny when the first commercially cloned cats come off the production line and work is perfected to clone the world's first dog.
With several hundred customers already on the books banking their dogs' DNA with the company, Mr Hawthorne is confident that that could happen as early as the beginning of next year.
Tabouli and Baba Ganoush are clones of their "mother" Tahini
It will soon be time for Tabouli and Baba Ganoush to flaunt their new found celebrity.
Mr Hawthorne says he intends to take them both on tour and show them off at the equivalent of the feline Oscars at the huge Cat Fanciers Association show in New York this October.