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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Cloning an Endangered Species

Air Date: Week of

An Iowa cow will give birth next month to a cloned baby gaur (GOW-ER), a type of endangered Asian ox. Dr. Robert Lanza, vice president of medical and scientific development at Advanced Cell Technology, the Massachusetts company which performed the procedure, talks with host Steve Curwood about cloning as a tool for preserving endangered animals.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, Iâm Steve Curwood. Noah wonât be born for a few weeks but heâs already famous. Noah is the fetus of a gaur, an endangered animal from India and Burma thatâs similar to an ox. He was cloned from genes obtained from a wild gaur that were implanted in Bessie, a cow from Iowa. Scientists have already met success with cross-species parenting using in vitro fertilization. But this is the first time genetic engineers have tried cloning as a tool to preserve endangered species. Dr. Robert Lanza is Vice President of Medical and Scientific Development at Advanced Cell Technology based in Worcester, Massachusetts. Dr. Lanza is in charge of the gaur project.

LANZA: What we did is we took some cells from a gaur and we actually fused some of those cells with empty cow eggs. These were ordinary eggs which had come from cows where they had their chromosomes removed. And then what we did was we activated those eggs and we implanted the embryos that formed back into domestic cows. And we successfully obtained normal pregnancies which is the first time ever that has been achieved using this technology. And beyond that, we were actually able to show that these pregnancies led to fetal development. In fact, we are actually expecting the birth of one of these animals in a few weeks, perhaps next month sometime.

CURWOOD: Kent Redford whoâs with Wildlife Conservation, was quoted recently as saying that the cloned gaur will never live its life in true gaurdom, to wander in the forests of India and frolic with other gaurs. What do you see, what will happen to this gaur after itâs weened? Is it going back to India?

LANZA: Well, of course, this is the first time an animal has ever been cloned using this technology. And I think we have the responsibility here to observe the animal for a short while to make sure that heâs healthy and that everything is okay and we certainly would not want to separate him from his mom for a while. The goal here really is is to apply this technology to reintroduce animals back into the wild, not to put them into cages or to put them in zoos.

CURWOOD: Now, if itâs possible to take an endangered animal, clone it and start to reproduce its numbers, some people might say that habitat protection might get a lower priority. What kind of concerns do you have about that?

LANZA: Well, I think you have a legitimate concern. I think thereâs absolutely no question that habitat preservation is the cornerstone of all of our conservation efforts and I canât underscore that enough. But, in reality, that isnât occurring, in particular in many poor countries that simply donât have the resources. But thatâs a much broader problem than we can personally individually do anything about. So, what weâre trying to do, at least at this point, is to try to protect what valuable biological diversity there is left so that these animals really have a fighting chance to survive. I mean, because every endangered animal that should die represents a group of genes that are lost from the planet forever. So we believe that this is certainly not a substitute for habitat conservation, itâs just another tool that conservation planners can use in their fight to protect these animals.

CURWOOD: Now, I can understand if there is a small band of endangered animals, for example, thereâre just 5,000 tigers left on the planet and that thereâs some genetic diversity obviously among those five thousand tigers. But what about where thereâs just one creature left? Your company is also planning on cloning the bucardo, thatâs a mountain goat from Spain, and the very last one died earlier this year but some of the tissue was frozen. So, if your goal is to help preserve genetic diversity and endangered species, how does the goat project fit into that?

LANZA: First of all, the Spanish authorities ought to be commended for having the foresight for catching this animal a number of months before she died so that we could at least preserve the cells from the last remaining animals so that that animal when itâs extinct would not have been lost from the planet forever. But more importantly, it is that if other people had that foresight to think OK we donât want to go the road of the bucardo, letâs try to prevent this from happening to other species. Let that be a warning. So what we are doing in that particular instance is the best we can do which unfortunately, it would be nice to try to avoid that in the future. But, what we are able to do is this last animal Celia, we will be able to hopefully bring her back. They do have a number of other subspecies, a number of other Spanish ibex that that animal could breed with so we could at least rescue what we can of the bucardo. And then, of course, there is the possibility I should point out that we havenât run by the Spanish government at this point, they would need to review this, but thereâs a new molecular biology tool which might allow us to replace one of the X chromosomes with a Y chromosome from a similar mountain goat so we could create a mate for this animal, so they could once again breed in their original habitat, where theyâve been living for centuries.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with me today.

LANZA: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.

CURWOOD: Dr. Robert Lanza is Vice President of Medical and Scientific Development at the Advanced Cell Technology company.



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