Extinction could be a thing of the past

Advances in cloning technology hold out new hope for endangered species while archaeologists learn more from fossilised prints
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Scientists are on the brink of revitalising an endangered species using cloning - and have plans to bring extinct animals back to life.

Scientists are on the brink of revitalising an endangered species using cloning - and have plans to bring extinct animals back to life.

An ordinary cow named Bessie on an Iowa farm is now carrying the embryo of a breed called the gaur. The humpbacked cow-like jungle animals, native to India and Burma, are officially listed as endangered.

Bessie's gaur calf - already called Noah - should be born next month, after being created using DNA from a skin cell taken from a dead gaur. The researchers at Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) in Worcester, Massachusetts also intend to attempt cloning giant pandas.

But their most ambitious plans include bringing back an extinct species - beginning with a Spanish mountain goat, whose last known survivor died nine months ago. Some of that goat's cells have been preserved in liquid nitrogen, and could be cloned like the gaur's - potentially achieving thehistoric first of resurrecting an extinct species.

"It's not science fiction. It's real," Robert Lanza, vicepresident of medical and scientific development at ACT told The Washington Post. "One hundred species are lost every day, and these mass extinctions are mostly our own doing. Now that we have the technology to reverse that, I think we have the responsibility to try."

Not all conservationists are eager to see him succeed. "There is a very hollow echo of a gaur in the birth of that animal to a cow in Iowa," responded Kent Redford, an international programme scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York. "To say that it is a gaur disrespects all gaurs in the places where gaurs live. That animal will never live its life in truegaurdom, to wander in the forests of India and frolic with other gaurs and die and let teak trees grow out of it. That's the gaur I'm working to save."

Researchers say the technology could not lead to a real-life "Jurassic Park" - in which dinosaurs are cloned by extracting their DNA from insects that died millions of years ago. DNA is a complex chemical that decays too much over such enormous periods to make cloning possible.

The animals are being produced using the technique developed and made famous by Scottish researchers who created Dolly the sheep, the first adult mammal clone, in 1996. The nucleus of the egg of a "surrogate" animal is removed, and replaced with that of the animal to be cloned. The cell then has a full complement of genetic material belonging to the cloned animal, and in effect is a fertilised egg. This is then implanted in the womb of a surrogate animal and brought to term.

Since Dolly's arrival the technique has principally been used on farm animals, but scientists speculate that it could be used effectively on endangered and extinct species too.

Bessie the cow is the first animal to act as a surrogate for another species - an essential step to repopulating endangered species. ACT scientists have determined that pandas will not be good hosts for panda clones. They have asked American hunters to harvest egg cells from any female black bears they kill, because they believe the bears will make better surrogates for pandas.