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Brasilia Zoo researchers aim to clone endan­gered animals

pub­lished 14 Novem­ber 2012 | mod­i­fied 05 Decem­ber 2012
Maned wolfBrazil­ian sci­en­tists have announced that they are mov­ing ahead with plans to clone a num­ber of endan­gered species, a list of ani­mals that includes the jaguar, maned wolf, and black lion. The ground­break­ing ini­tia­tive is being con­ducted by the Brasilia Zoo­log­i­cal Gar­den in part­ner­ship with the Brazil­ian government’s agri­cul­tural research agency, EMBRAPA. The researchers claim that they’re not look­ing to repop­u­late habi­tats, but to increase the num­ber of cap­tive spec­i­mens avail­able. But in the event of extreme cases, they admit that they’re pre­pared to release these cloned ani­mals into the wild.

Researchers at the Brasilia Zoo­log­i­cal Gar­den have selected eight ani­mals for the ini­tia­tive, most of which are on the the Red List of Threat­ened Species com­piled by the Chico Mendes Insti­tute for Bio­di­ver­sity Con­ser­va­tion (ICM­Bio) and the Inter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Nature (IUCN). How­ever, none of the tar­geted species are crit­i­cally endan­gered.

Other con­ser­va­tion­ists wel­comed the plan, but say the pri­or­ity should always be to pre­serve species in the wild by min­imis­ing hunt­ing and main­tain­ing habi­tats. Or as Ian Har­ri­son of the Bio­di­ver­sity Assess­ment Unit at Con­ser­va­tion Inter­na­tional in Arling­ton, Vir­ginia, put it:
While cloning is a tool of last resort, it may prove valu­able for some species. Exper­i­ment­ing with it now, using species that are not at imme­di­ate risk of extinc­tion, is important

The genetic mate­r­ial required to clone these ani­mals were col­lected over the course of the past two years, includ­ing the genomes of the bush dog, coati, col­lared anteater, grey brocket deer, maned wolf and bison. The genomes were har­vested pri­mar­ily from dead ani­mals native to the Cer­rado, the vast trop­i­cal savan­nah biome that stretches across cen­tral Brazil. The researchers say they have already col­lected 420 sam­ples which are cur­rently being stored in their gene banks.

Now that this ini­tial phase is com­plete, the next step will be to train the researchers at the zoo.

These ani­mals will not be the first ones to be cloned by EMBRAPA; the gov­ern­ment agency was respon­si­ble for the birth of a cloned cow in 2001. Since that time, var­i­ous other ani­mals have been cloned in Brazil, includ­ing other cows and horses.

As it stands, exist­ing leg­is­la­tion in Brazil does not ade­quately set out the reg­u­la­tions for cloning, but a bill is cur­rently under devel­op­ment in the Brazil­ian sen­ate. Speak­ing to the Tier­ramérica news ser­vice, EMBRAPA researcher Car­los Fred­erico Mar­tins noted that, “Research can be freely con­ducted, but there is lit­tle mon­i­tor­ing and con­trol.”

And accord­ing to Mar­tins, Brazil is not alone when think­ing about cloning endan­gered species, not­ing that sci­en­tists in both South Korea and the United States are also work­ing on sim­i­lar research.

As to when the first cloned ani­mal is expected to make its appear­ance, Mar­tins wasn’t pre­pared to say, but sug­gested that the first spec­i­men was likely to be a maned wolf.

And in terms of motives, EMBRAPA researchers insist that they’re not intend­ing to release the ani­mals into the wild — at least not unless they have to. The idea is to keep the ani­mals in cap­tiv­ity for their own use — like restock­ing zoo pop­u­la­tions — with­out hav­ing to pull the ani­mals from their nat­ural habi­tats. They’re hop­ing to see con­ser­va­tion efforts in which these ani­mals have their num­bers restored by nat­ural means.

And indeed, this is likely pru­dent given that cloned ani­mals would dimin­ish the genetic diver­sity of wild stocks. More­over, the long term effects of releas­ing cloned ani­mals into the wild are com­pletely unknown — includ­ing poten­tially dele­te­ri­ous genetic effects.

But that being said, the researchers admit that in a cri­sis sit­u­a­tion they will be able to “pro­vide rein­force­ment.” As Brasilia Zoo con­ser­va­tion­ist Juciara Pelles told Tier­ramérica, “We are still in the phase of devel­op­ing the tech­nol­ogy, so we still don’t know if it will be pos­si­ble to res­cue a pop­u­la­tion in the wild, but we could poten­tially make it viable again.”

The next step for the researchers is to get the for­mal go-​ahead from the rel­e­vant agen­cies, what could take as lit­tle as one month.

The above news item is reprinted from mate­ri­als avail­able at io9.com-we come from the future. Orig­i­nal text may be edited for con­tent and length.
(Source: io9​.com, 07.11.2012; New­Sci­en­tist, 12.11.2012)

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