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DATE Mon 13 Nov 2000

Cloning: Science that might have saved the dodo bird: Helping the doomed

In what could represent a new way to save endangered species, scientists at a Massachusetts biotechnology company said last month that they had cloned an endangered Asian gaur -- an ox-like animal that is native to India and Southeast Asia -- and implanted the resulting embryo into a cow in Iowa. The gaur is expected to be born this month.

If the birth is successful, it would represent the first cloning of an endangered species and the first cloned animal to use another species as a surrogate mother. Scientists say the technique could not only help preserve endangered species but also even revive species that are extinct.

Indeed, the company, Advanced Cell Technology, of Worcester, Mass., said last month that it had received permission from the government of Spain to clone the already extinct bucardo mountain goat using cells collected from the last goat before she died earlier this year. The company is also looking at cloning giant pandas using black bears as surrogate mothers and frozen cells from Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling, the famous pandas at the National Zoo that died in 1999 and 1992 respectively.

The technique, however, which seems right out of Jurassic Park, is raising ethical questions. Some conservationists fear that cloning would detract from other, less costly efforts at preservation. Some say it is still not known if an animal raised by a different species will thrive in the wild.

"It's more like an amusement park version of the species rather than the wild species," said Kent Redford, director of biodiversity analysis and co-ordination at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York. "We want to preserve a whole lot more than the genetic material," he said, adding that species should be preserved in their natural environments. "That can't be reproduced in some Frankenstein lab."

Robert P. Lanza, vice-president for medical and scientific development at Advanced Cell Technology, said cloning would help reverse damage to wildlife habitat done by people. He called for zoos and wildlife officials to immediately begin collecting and freezing tissue samples of endangered species. "For a few dollars of electricity you can preserve the genes of all the pandas in China," he said. He also said cloning was not likely to work on long-extinct species because it would be difficult or impossible to find intact DNA. "You're certainly not going to be seeing dinosaurs in your yard anytime soon," he said.

To create the gaur, scientists took a skin cell from a recently deceased gaur and fused it with a cow's egg from which the chromosomes -- containing the cow's genetic material -- had been removed. The DNA of the gaur commandeered the egg, which grew into a gaur embryo. The embryo was implanted into the womb of a cow serving as a surrogate mother. The baby, which will be named Noah, should be an exact genetic copy of the gaur from which the cells were obtained.

Previously, many scientists thought such cross- species cloning would be impossible because the DNA of the cloned animal would not interact properly with the rest of the egg cell.

The technique had failed many more times than it was successful.  Scientists created several hundred embryos but only 81 grew to the stage where they could be implanted. Some 42 were planted into 32 cows, but only eight of the cows became pregnant.

Based on the examination of the fetuses, Lanza said the gaurs seemed to be normal, not crosses between cows and gaurs.


PUBLICATION:  The National Post
DATE: 18 October, 2000

India will try to clone nearly extinct cheetah

Lab to be established: Wildlife experts question wisdom of bringing back big cat

An attempt to clone the Asiatic cheetah, which vanished from India half a century ago, is to be made by a new laboratory that aims to use reproductive science to save endangered species.

India is to give US$1-million to the Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, southern India, to set up a laboratory to develop test-tube baby methods, egg and sperm  banks, and cloning technology to preserve endangered species. Professor Lalji Singh, the centre's director, said yesterday he hoped the technique could produce a clone of the cheetah within a few years, although wildlife experts expressed some reservations about the plan.

Mr. Singh has recruited a 13-strong team to use techniques similar to those employed by Advanced Cell Technology, a Massachusetts biotech firm, to make a dairy cow pregnant with a gaur, a rare ox-like creature. The U.S. company is also considering cloning pandas and an extinct mountain goat called a bucardo. Now Mr. Singh hopes to take the genetic code from Asiatic cheetah cells and use it to reprogram empty leopard eggs to mass-produce cheetah embryos. Any viable embryos would then be carried to term in leopard surrogate mothers.  The last record for the cheetah in India dates to 1948, when a rajah shot three from his car. So, Mr. Singh has requested India's Central Zoo Authority and the External Affairs Ministry to arrange for the import of a live animal from Iran, where just 50 remain in the wild.

The project would be undertaken by the new laboratory, which  would be set up, under the auspices of the Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology, at the Nehru Zoological Park nearby.  "Our laboratory will be ready in a year,'' said Mr. Singh, who  is conducting research on the genetic diversity of wild cats.  Wildlife experts are skeptical. Gajendra Singh, a big-cat  expert, said cloning is expensive and inefficient. He questioned the wisdom of bringing back the cheetah when much of the environment where the cat could roam freely has been lost.

Reliance on cloning may lead to complacency about the  destruction of habitats and other threats to species, added Paul Toyne, species conservation officer of the Worldwide Fund for Nature.  He said cloning does have a role in conservation, but emphasized it is only part of the solution.  "We have to consider what were the threats that made that  species go extinct and eradicate those problems,'' he said.

In India, where there is pressure on national parks and problems with poaching, "one would have to question the long-term  viability of spending that money on cloning and the cost of reintroduction,'' he said, explaining that, without parental  role models, a clone would find it difficult to learn to hunt and survive in the wild. *