In the realm of commercial cloning, trickled-down technology from this cutting edge field of research has allowed firms to offer pet cloning services. And in the realm of research, tremendous advances continue as scientists are hatching plans to resurrect extinct beasts. Scientists have almost finished mapping the Woolly Mammoth genome, and have already injected DNA from an extinct species into a mouse.
Now arguably the greatest landmark event for the field of cloning has occurred. Scientists have for the first time cloned an extinct animal, the Pyrenean ibex, a form of wild mountain goat. The really spectacular thing about this cloning effort is that it was done using only DNA from skin samples.
Technically classed as a genetically distinct subspecies of the Spanish ibex, the Pyrenean ibex, or bucardo as it is called by the locals, used to roam the mountainous hillside of northern Spain. Known for its distinct horns, the animal was a popular target for hunters, and by the 19th century only 100 were left. The species was not declared protected until 1973, at which time there were around 30 animals. In 2000, the last known member of this critically endangered species was found dead on a hillside. Researchers at the time decided to wisely preserve skin samples in liquid nitrogen.
The well-preserved skin samples proved a fruitful source for DNA. Replicating this DNA using common genomic techniques, the researchers injected it into goat eggs, replacing the goat DNA.
While a great success, the effort also showcased the difficult road ahead for producing viable clones. While born alive, the newborn ibex kid had defects in its lungs, similar to those found in many cloned sheep, and they proved fatal. However, as some sheep clones have lived relatively normal lifespans, the success raises the hope of a more permanent resurrection.
Dr Jose Folch, from the Centre of Food Technology and Research of Aragon helped lead the research. He states, "The delivered kid was genetically identical to the bucardo. In species such as bucardo, cloning is the only possibility to avoid its complete disappearance."
Professor Robert Miller, director the Medical Research Council's Reproductive Sciences Unit at Edinburgh University who heads a northern white rhino cloning effort funded by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland cheered the news. He states, "I think this is an exciting advance as it does show the potential of being able to regenerate extinct species. Clearly there is some way to go before it can be used effectively, but the advances in this field are such that we will see more and more solutions to the problems faced."
The race is now on to make sure that critically endangered species' tissues are preserved for future cloning efforts. Britain's Zoological Society of London and America's Natural History Museum have teamed up in a project called Frozen Ark. They are in the process of storing samples from thousands of species.
While cloning a dinosaur is highly improbable due to DNA's chemical tendency to rapidly break apart to the point where it cannot be sequenced, this new breakthrough paves the way for cloning of both endangered species, and extinct species with fully sequenced genomes, such as Neanderthals or, likely soon, the Woolly Mammoth. However, this new work also highlights the extreme challenge ahead in trying to establish a sustainable population of a cloned animal, or even clones that live to reach adulthood.