Sooam Cloning lab in Korea aims to save wild species

Mini title : Sooam Cloning lab in Korea aims to save wild species

Source : New Scientist February 2016.

Cloning lab aims to save wild species

[writer Mark Zastrow]

A DOG lies unconscious on the operating table, as Woo Suk Hwang gently lifts the puppy from her womb.
While I watch, another researcher, David Kim leans in to tell me about the original, the source of this puppy셲 DNA.

He calls it the original, because this nearly born puppy is a clone. Hwang snips open the amniotic sac and the little furball slips out into the world. It셲 black, wet and motionless. An assistant wraps it in a towel, massages it gently, and it starts to yelp. Success!

The lab has been cloning domestic dogs for years and is now hoping to do the same with their wild relatives. Hwang and his colleagues want to use their skills to help endangered species. They say they can rescue some of the world셲 most endangered canids from extinction, including the Ethiopian wolf and the Asiatic wild dog (or dhole).

This has raised concerns among conservationists, who fear cloning will be little more than a shiny distraction from wider efforts to preserve habitats and biodiversity.

Hwang unveiled the world셲 first cloned dog in 2005, but soon after became an international pariah when he was found to have faked research on human stem cells. His supporters in South Korea funded the creation of a private lab, Sooam Biotech, in Seoul. There he focused on cloning canines a verified accomplishment charging bereaved dog owners to replace their recently deceased companions to the tune of $100,000 a pup.

His team also routinely clones pigs with genes susceptible to disease to be used for drug tests, and breeds of cattle prized for their meat. In total, the group produces about 500 cloned embryos every day across all species.

Wolf rescue

Hwang셲 team takes a skin cell from the animal you wish to clone, extracts its nucleus and then inserts it into an egg with its nucleus removed. The technique is called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), and the team has now refined and extended it to coyotes and grey wolves, using dogs as egg donors and surrogates. Soon the lab hopes to be producing clones of endangered species. 쏧t is the most meaningful way that we can use the SCNT technology to contribute to society, says Sooam셲 research director Yeon Woo Jeong.

First up is the Ethiopian wolf, of which fewer than 500 remain, living in the country셲 high-altitude alpine meadows. The degradation of the highlands because of human expansion has shrunk their range to six enclaves on different mountains, all isolated from each other. Such low numbers of individuals creates low genetic diversity that can reduce the ability of a species to reproduce and survive.

The Sooam lab hopes to preserve these gene pools by cryogenically banking the cells of as many individual wolves as possible. If an animal dies in the wild, Sooam could thaw its stored cells, create clones using domestic dog surrogates, and reintroduce them.

Since there are no Ethiopian wolves in captivity, they will first need to be captured. In January, Sooam inked an agreement to collaborate with Arsi University in central Ethiopia through which it hopes to receive permission from the government to collect tissue samples. If it is granted, the lab hopes to be providing cloned pups for repopulation within a year.

Because Ethiopian wolves are very closely related to dogs, the team expects the actual cloning to go smoothly. 쏧 don셳 think there will be too much of a complication, says Kim.

The lab also hopes to start work later this year on the dhole, fewer than 2500 of which remain in the wild, in mountain forests of India and South-East Asia.

The dhole will test Sooam셲 cloning expertise: it is more distantly related to the domestic dog and classified in a separate genus. In principle, dogs can be surrogates to any canid, but in reality the success rate will vary.
쏧t depends, species by species, on how closely related they are to the dog, says Kim. Hwang셲 team has attempted to clone the African wild dog, which also belongs to a separate genus. This led to successful impregnations, but no successful births.

So can cloning actually help conserve endangered species? Many researchers are far from convinced. Some feel the lab is operating in a vacuum and its work could even hurt existing conservation efforts.

One sceptic is conservation biologist Claudio Sillero, who founded the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme at the University of Oxford. 쏷hey are the last man standing in terms of representing the wilderness of those African meadows, he says of Ethiopian wolves.

Three years ago, Sooam proposed a collaboration to help conserve the wolves, he says. But he turned the lab down, saying cloning wouldn셳 be worth the time.

Waste of resources?

The most pressing problem for Ethiopian wolves is not genetic diversity or any difficulty in reproducing, he says. It셲 that they are losing habitat and prey, and are susceptible to diseases spread by local domestic dogs. Genetic diversity could be preserved simply by moving animals between packs, he says. And he worries that politicians presented with a seemingly simple solution will choose cloning over wide-reaching and long-term conservation programmes.

쏞loning Ethiopian wolves should go smoothly, but is it a distraction from wider conservation efforts?

Luigi Boitani, a conservation biologist at the University of Rome, thinks cloning is a 쐗aste of resources that should be reserved for extreme, nearextinction situations. 쏧 do not see any canid species in this desperate situation yet, he says.

Sooam says its main aim is to provide the technical means to make clones it셲 up to governments or conservation organisations to decide when to produce clones, at what scale, and how to reintroduce them. And canids may just be the start, the lab is now looking to clone Siberian musk deer, a vulnerable species whose population has been declining in Korea.

Despite his reservations, Sillero leaves open the possibility that cloners and conservationists could work together to create an insurance policy, perhaps if faced with a sudden extinction. In that case, cloning could be useful.
쏻ho knows? he says. 쏮aybe 20 years down the line that will become an accepted practice.


In the kennel room at the Sooam Biotech cloning facility in Seoul, I get to meet some of the cloned puppies. The first are two 9-month-old German shepherds, cloned for the national police. Their original was a working dog deemed particularly capable and well-disposed. They are endlessly friendly, eagerly jumping up to get my attention.

But it셲 also incredibly eerie: not only are their coats identical, so are their mannerisms. When they hop down, they twist their bodies to the
left every time, sometimes in unison. The only detail I can use to tell them apart is that one of them has a left ear that points upwards.

Further down is another pair of puppies cloned from the same donor; these ones are just 2 months old. They leap at me with the same unbridled enthusiasm, and one of them also has a perky left ear. I do a double take a quadruple take, really glancing back down the row of kennels at their older siblings. It셲 like looking at a living growth chart.

See More : New Scientist February 2016.

Related Articles

Leave a reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.