Scientists clone monkeys

30 January 2018

Interview with

Georgia Mills - The Naked Scientists

A recent paper in the journal Cell has announced the successful cloning of two macaques which are a kind of monkey. But what does this mean for us humans? Georgia Mills reports…

Georgia - You may have noticed the recent headlines announcing the successful cloning of monkeys in China. And while some of the broadsheets are heralding this as “dawn of the planet of the clones” this is not what the research was about. So what’s new here?

There was a similar splash of headlines when Dolly the sheep was born; she was the first mammal cloned from an adult cell using a technique called nuclear transfer. Basically the genetic material from an adult cell was placed inside an unfertilised egg that previously had its own DNA removed. The result - Dolly - was a sheep that was genetically identical to that adult cell used to make her; she was a clone.

Since then mice, cows, pigs, cats, and dogs have been cloned using the same process, but not primates - the technique just didn’t work. The closest scientists came was in 1999 when a rhesus monkey was cloned using a different method called embryo splitting. But he announcement this week of the creation of monkey clones Zhongzhong and Huahua in China shows that the Dolly approach can successfully be used in nonhuman primates.

The team achieved what had previously been impossible by adding two molecules to the cell. These helped to regulate which regions of the DNA were read and allowed the cell to be reprogrammed. Nevertheless the process is still very inefficient. It took 79 embryo attempts to create these two new monkeys. Plus this cloning was done using fetal cells rather than adult ones such as in Dolly’s case. Although this was attempted, it didn’t work.

Critically the aim of the project was categorically not to develop ways to clone humans. The purpose is for studying human diseases. By having populations of genetically identical monkeys, researchers can test drugs and learn about how diseases work much more precisely. The Chinese lab have confirmed they followed international guidelines for animal research set by The US National Institutes of Health. However, research on monkeys is very expensive and many question the ethics of using primates, even when it could lead to treatments for diseases like Parkinson’s or cancer.

So could an errant scientist use this technique to clone a human? Well, it’s important to note this technique did not work for adult cells so cloning a living person is still outside of our abilities. Whatsmore, it’s illegal in the UK and many other countries to clone humans, and scientists have branded the idea as stupid and pointless. So this should be very low down on our list of worries.

And finally, cloning has a bit of a bad rep, with one spokesman from an organisation that shall not be named branding in “frankenscience,” but the existence of clones is completely natural. Many species clone themselves all the time - including us. Identical twins are technically clones and won’t thank you for being compared to Frankenstein’s monster. So while the techniques being used here are something science has invented, the existence of clones themselves is not.

Music: Bensound

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