Stem Cell Cloning: A Novel Approach towards Biodiversity Conservation?

If you were given a chance to clone a dead animal, which animal would you clone? A Tyrannosaurus rex? A woolly mammoth? Or your pet dog, Mr. Dodo? With biotechnology advancing at breakneck pace, scientists are very close to cloning extinct species such as the woolly mammoths!

The Woolly Mammoth. Picture courtesy of Canberra Times

In 2006, scientists innovated a novel technique that alters the genetic makeup of normal cells, giving them embryonic stem-cell like capabilities. This eliminates the need to harvest embryonic stem-cells for cloning, which had previously precluded the cloning of endangered and extinct animal species (due to scarcity of embryos). Following this breakthrough, scientists across the world have achieved varied successes in stem-cell cloning. For instance, Dr. Teruhiko Wakayama from the Riken Centre for Developmental Biology successfully cloned a mouse from a tissue sample that had been frozen for 16 years.

Only 7 northern white rhinos remain in the world today. Photo: Nature, International Weekly Journal of Science

Scientists are currently looking at saving critically endangered animal like the northern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) and the Drill (Mandrillus leucophaeus). There is also great optimism about using stem-cell cloning to revive recently extinct animals species such as the Woolly Mammoth, and the Dodo!

In Australia, scientists have been investigating ways to revive extinct species like the Tasmanian tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus). Just two months ago, a team at the University of New South Wales successfully cloned embryos of the gastric-brooding frog (Rheobatrachus vitellinus), which became extinct three decades ago.

Despite all this optimism, scientists remain pessimistic about cloning dinosaurs such as the Tyrannosaurus rex because their DNA, the essential component in stem-cell cloning, have been annihilated by erosion over the ages. But avid Jurassic park fans are not taking no for an answer. After all, we used to believe that it was impossible to set foot on the moon!

The Tasmanian tiger died in Tasmania Zoo on 7 September 1936. Photo: Discovery News

“Playing God”

What is the role of scientists in the grand scheme of things? Do we play the role of a passive conservationist or do we stage a divine intervention and save our beloved animals from the cruel fate of extinction?  How do we decide which species to save? Some scientists argue that some animals should stay extinct because they are not suited for the current environment. Also, cloning does not negate issues like illegal poaching, extreme fishing, or severe environmental damage – issues that forced many animals to extinction in the first place. Furthermore, the cloned animals will likely be condemned to become museum exhibits because their extinct parents will not be around to teach them how to forage for food, mate, fly etc.

The issue of stem-cell cloning raises many bioethical conundrums, but let’s leave those questions to the scientists to frat over while we ponder on a more pertinent question –  what expression should we replace “as dead as a dodo” with? Because, as fate would have it, that idiom is on the verge of extinction.

Gordon SOON (u4806410)

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About Biodiversity Conservation Blog

I am an Associate Professor at The Australian National University and convene a (very awesome) course called Biodiversity Conservation. Myself and students in the course contribute to this blog.
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One Response to Stem Cell Cloning: A Novel Approach towards Biodiversity Conservation?

  1. A great read and a good point that, even if successful, is bringing back extinct species a conservation measure?

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