Telegraph – A novel kind of test tube reproduction is to be used to help save one of the world’s rarest animals – the northern white rhino – which is on the brink of extinction with few, if any, individuals left in the wild.
- Endangered wildcat clones have kittens nature’s way
- Infection kills clone of endangered wild ox
- Dewey the deer is latest clone
Cloning has been used before in efforts to help preserve endangered wildcats, ox and sheep but the method is controversial because it is very inefficient and conservationists also believe it is a distraction from the underlying problem of preserving wild habitats.
Now the Institute for Breeding Rare and Endangered African Mammals in Edinburgh has approached Dr Thomas Hildebrandt at Berlin Zoo and Sir Ian Wilmut’ and Dr Paul De Sousa at the University of Edinburgh to find a way to test an alternative to conventional cloning methods that could help northern white rhino repopulate the grasslands of north-east Africa.
As first reported by the Telegraph, Sir Ian has abandoned the method used by his team to clone Dolly the sheep more than a decade ago to obtain embryo cells and is now pursuing a Japanese method that, by using genetic engineering, can turn adult cells, such as skin cells, into embryonic-like cells.
Sir Ian said the new strategy to help the rhino is “very interesting” but adds: “I would not describe it as cloning.”
The idea is to use the Japanese method to create embryonic cells from a white rhino in captivity – there are a handful in European zoos – and blend them with the embryos of a close cousin, the southern white rhino, which is not so endangered.
The resulting embryo is not a clone but a “chimera” with a mixture of cells from both sub-species, but it is hoped that some of the resulting offspring, grown in surrogate southern white rhino mothers, will grow up to produce the sperm and eggs of the northern white rhino for conservation efforts.
Prof Robert Millar, the director of the Medical Research Council’s Reproductive Sciences Unit at Edinburgh University, who is leading the study, emphasised the need to protect the rhino habitat as well but regards the use of exotic reproductive science as an insurance policy.
“When you get to this critical level, there is not much you can do,” said Prof Millar. However, he added that when it comes to the new method, suggested by Sir Ian, “We are really excited about it, we really think this can be done.”
The Institute for Breeding Rare and Endangered African Mammals plans to collaborate with Edinburgh Zoo on using new technologies to conserve other endangered species, such as the African wild dog, the Ethiopian wolf and the pygmy hippo. The scientists will collaborate with staff at the Lapalala Wilderness nature reserve in the Limpopo Province of South Africa.
There have already been attempts to use conventional cloning to help endangered species: wildcats have been bred at the Audubon Centre for Research of Endangered Species, New Orleans; a gaur, a rare breed of wild ox, was cloned by the Massachusetts based company Advanced Cell Technology; and a mouflon lamb, an endangered species found in Sardinia, Corsica and Cyprus, was cloned by team at the University of Teramo, Italy.
Most speculative of all, some have suggested that cloning could be combined with efforts to reconstruct the genetic code of the mammoth to help the woolly beast walk the earth again.
However, cloning has “poor efficiency” compared with the chimera approach, stresses Prof Millar.
By Roger Highfield, Science Editor
Source: The Telegraph.co.uk