Cloning, the creation of genetically identical individuals, seems like a fantasy of sci-fi movies and mad scientists. But large-scale cloning, as part of a conservation effort, might not be that far off. Before we get our flying cars and jet packs, we might get clones of endangered species.
The Brasilia Zoological Garden, in conjunction with the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA), recently announced that they are moving forward with a plan to clone up to eight endangered species. The goal of the project is not to augment the wild animal population, but to increase the number of captive species. EMBRAPA reasons that this will lessen the need to take animals from their natural habitats and place them in zoos.
To perform the cloning process, EMBRAPA has spent the last two years collecting genomes from the targeted animals. Scientists report that they already have around 420 samples.
"What they're going to do is take cells from the endangered species and plant the nucleus of those cells into an oocyte [female reproductive cell] of the carrying mother and clone it," said Dr. John Loike, the Director of Special Programs for the Center for Bioethics at Columbia University, to TakePart.
Ironically, conservationists are not too keen on this latest ‘conservation’ method. They are worried about the welfare of the cloned animal, as well as the carrying mother during gestation. A bigger concern is the potential for unforeseen consequences on the existing populations of endangered animals if the cloned animals are released to the wild. Introducing cloned animals into the wild could negatively impact biodiversity by limiting the available gene pool.
From the scientific perspective, Dr. Loike believes that if done responsibly and carefully, the cloned genes will not have a significant effect. “If they’re smart about it, they can minimize the risk. If it becomes herds [of cloned animals], it’s a problem. But if you selectively spread them all over … I don’t think it will have an effect. If you’re [cloning] hundreds of thousands, you’d have to do some control studies.” He does acknowledge that existing inbreeding problems with purebred dogs give him some concerns about the new Brazilian project.
Teresa Telecky, Director of the Wildlife Department for the Humane Society International, also expressed weariness about cloning: “Cloning strikes me as a rather crazy idea because if you're trying to protect wildlife populations one thing you rely on is genetic diversity. Species will not survive without genetic diversity. Cloning is the exact replication of the DNA in one animal, so it's exactly the opposite of what you would do to conserve endangered species.”
The debate about cloning also avoids the real issue behind the reasons the animals are endangered in the first place. Kathleen Conlee, Vice President of Animal Research Issues for the Humane Society of the U.S., says: “We urge that other methods be used to deal with the fact that species are becoming endangered. Putting it out there that we can rely on [cloning] lessens the urgency that we should take care of something like this. [Cloning] could actually fuel a decline. Let's put the resources behind what other things that's causing the diminishing animal populations."
Despite concerns and the untested nature of this cloning project, Brazil is moving full steam ahead. If it is approved, EMBRAPA has said that the first species to be cloned will be a Brazilian maned wolf. The cloning project could begin as soon as next month, pending approval by other government agencies.
Even as the plan moves ahead, the debate about its effectiveness continues. Cloning is potentially an effective, albeit extremely expensive, conservation method. But besides the host of unknown problems cloning could bring, it might also inhibit conversation about why these animals are going extinct.
Even if scientists clone a thousand new animals, where will they live if humans continue to encroach on their habitat? And even if researchers clone a million new maned foxes, will they survive if poaching and hunting continues?
Just because technology enables us to clone endangered species, it does not necessarily mean that we should.
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Jenna Shapiro is a high school senior in New York City who is passionate about writing and environmental issues. She has previously worked with EcoLogic Solutions. In her free time she can be found reading, biking, or walking her adorable dogs!