Since the early 19th century, scientists have been interested in the idea of cloning – the process of producing genetically identical copies (a.k.a. clones) of a cell or an organism. Cloning is normally achieved via the technique known as somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), which involves the process of moving the nucleus (the cellular compartment that holds the genetic materials of the cell) from a donor’s somatic cell (any cell in the body other than sperm and egg) into an enucleated egg cell (an egg cell which has had its cell nucleus removed).
The year is 1970. An English scientist has pioneered research in nuclear transplantation and cloning by successfully creating a Xenopus laevis frog (even though the embryo reached only the tadpole stage).
Fast forward to the year 1996. Dolly the sheep is born in Scotland. It is not the first cloned animal, but it is by far the most well-known. Dolly was cloned using SCNT and lived for around 6.5 years before she was put to sleep due to progressive lung disease and severe arthritis. Ever since Dolly, many other animals have successfully been cloned for various purposes.
The first primate species to be successfully cloned
Fast forward again to the end of the year of 2017, and two baby macaque monkey clones are born in China using the same (but refined) technique. Being the first primate species to be successfully cloned, the announcement of this successful cloning event has drawn interest from across the globe.
The twin macaque monkey clones were named Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua, which are derived from the Chinese words ‘zhonghua’ that carry the meaning of Chinese nation or people. The scientists who have created the clones are extremely excited with their success as they are hoping to apply the technique into creating genetically primates for biological or medical research purposes.
But before we dwell on the discussion of ethics, let us take a look at how the twin macaque monkey are created using SCNT technique. After all, I am no expert in ethics.
Similar to Dolly the sheep, in order to create Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua, the technique required nucleus from a donor macaque monkeys somatic cell, a monkey egg cell that has had its nucleus removed and of course, a surrogate monkey mother to carry the embryo. The scientists have chosen to use nucleus taken from foetal monkey cells as they have noticed that using nucleus taken from adult monkey cells can only produced offspring that survived for a couple of hours after birth.
Scientists…are expecting the creation of more macaque monkey clones in near future
Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua will be monitored continuously for their development, both physically and intellectually, by the scientists who have created them. It has been reported that the twin macaque monkeys are bottle-fed and are growing normally when compared to other monkeys of their age. The scientists also planned to further improve their technique and are expecting the creation of more macaque monkey clones in near future.
While the successful cloning of macaque monkeys is a huge breakthrough for biomedicine, various concerns have also been raised. Some scientists are supportive of the idea as primates are close relative of humans and will make great animal models for biological, biomedical and even pharmaceutical researches. However, others are worried about the possibility of such technology being abused by people of ill-will into cloning human. While it is highly possible that the technique can be refined into human cloning, maybe we should be hopeful that this refined technique can help us to better understand certain human diseases. And maybe, we will be able to improve and/or create more therapies for nasty diseases. After all, any good invention can turn sour if fell into the hand of a wrong person.