In the first of its kind cloning, two monkeys are the first ever primates to be cloned using the technique that created Dolly the sheep.
The success of the technique brings the prospect of cloning human beings even closer. However, scientists are wary that there could be no possible good in creating such clones and ethical and legal questions need to be answered about such research.
What is more interesting to note is that the technique will allow researchers to create whole labs full of genetically identical monkeys. That could prove tremendously useful in scientific and medical research – allowing doctors to watch how specific treatments affect the genetic makeup of animals that are otherwise exactly the same, for instance.
The two identical long-tailed macaques – named Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua – were born eight and six weeks ago at a laboratory in China.
They represent the furthest reaches of cloning technology, genetically resembling each other entirely.
While they are not the first primates to have been cloned in the strictest sense, they are the first to be produced using the single cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) technique, which involves transferring cell nucleus DNA to a donated egg cell that is then prompted to develop into an embryo.
This is the same process used for Dolly the sheep.
Previous work has relied on splitting embryos, which is the same phenomenon that happens when twins are born and can only produce four offspring.
The two monkeys were part of a total of 79 different transfer attempts, which used different techniques. Scientists had some luck cloning monkeys using adult cells, but those were only able to survive for a few days.
That genetic symmetry of the monkeys means that scientists could create a whole experiment’s worth of identical monkeys, save for the specific genetic changes that they want to study.
Speaking about it, Dr Qiang Sun, lead author of the study that was published in the journal Cell said, “You can produce cloned monkeys with the same genetic background except the gene you manipulated.”
However, the research has already led to fears about where it could lead. The scientists stress they did the work under strict international codes, and co-author Muming Poo said the team was aware “that future research using non-human primates anywhere in the world depends on scientists following very strict ethical standards”.
What is most fascinating to note, however, is that the breakthrough means that it would theoretically be easier to clone a human, since primates share so much of their makeup with us....