You might remember hearing about Dolly the sheep. She was perhaps the most famous sheep in the world because of something that set her apart from other animals — she was a clone. Dolly represented the first successful cloning of an endangered species, a wild sheep called the European mouflon.
More than 20 years after the creation of Dolly, scientists are still playing with the idea of using cloning to help save endangered species. But the technology is still far from perfect, and not everyone agrees it’s a good idea.
A Still-Developing Technology
Dolly the sheep lived for about half as long as her species typically does. She died in 2003 from a lung infection that’s common in sheep, especially those kept indoors. Some said the fact that she was a clone led to her early death and that she may have been born with the genetic makeup of a six-year-old sheep, the age of the animal scientists cloned to create her. Other researchers, though, said they found no evidence that the cloning caused the early death.
It’s common, though, for cloned animals to have serious health problems. Scientists later managed to create a clone of an extinct species, the Pyrenean ibex, but the animal was born with deformed lungs and died a few minutes after being born.
The process is extremely inefficient, as well. In their efforts to create the ibex, scientists created 439 cloned embryos. Fifty-seven worked well enough to be transferred to goat mothers, seven pregnancies occurred and only one ibex was actually born. Today, cloning wild species is successful less than 1 percent of the time.
Cloning is still fraught with a high risk of failure, but some hold on to hope that the process could improve in the future and offer a viable solution.
Band-Aid or Long-Term Solution?
Even if cloning did work well, would it be able to help endangered species and preserve biodiversity? It might do some good, but it wouldn’t address the root of the problem.
Even if we could reliably bring back extinct species or create more individuals of endangered ones, they still might not be able to survive in the wild. The causes of their decline would still be present. Habitat loss, poaching and invasive species would still pose risks to them.
Each tiger, for example, requires 25,000 acres of habitat, but farmers have taken more than 93 percent of their natural environment. Even if we created more tigers, they’d still have nowhere to go.
Hope for the Future
While cloning extinct or endangered species might not solve the problem, it might help us in the future once we work out the other crucial parts of the equation. If we preserve these species’ DNA, it gives us the opportunity to possible bring them back sometime in the future once we’ve reestablished their habitats. We’ll also need to improve our cloning capabilities.
To this end, the Institute for Conservation Research at the San Diego Zoo created what’s known as a “frozen zoo,” a stockpile of tissue preserved on ice. Scientists in Brazil are working on a similar project. They’ve begun collecting genetic information from the country’s endangered species in hopes it might one day help save them.
The Brazilian scientists are also using the preserved DNA to work on improving cloning techniques, so we’ll be ready if the time comes to clone endangered species.
While cloning might not yet be a viable option and certainly is not a be-all and end-all for preserving biodiversity, it might one day play a role in helping save some of our endangered, or even extinct, species.