In South Korea, previously discredited scientist, Woosuk Hwang is working on cloning endangered canine species. In the private lab, Sooam Biotech close to 500 new canine clones are created every day. The lab was opened shortly after Hwang was uncovered as a fraud and sentenced to two years in prison, of which he didn’t serve. Branded a national hero in 2005, after unveiling the first cloned dog, and claiming to have created human stem cell lines that could be used to study diseased cells, only a year later he fell from grace. Seoul National University discovered that the stem cell lines were faked and a national bioethics committee found that he had forced some lab members to donate their eggs for research.
Surprisingly, he still has some supporters who funded his new lab. Mark Zastrow from the New Scientist visited the “incredibly eerie” lab recalling the animal clones’ identical coats and mannerisms. Using somatic cell nuclear transfer, the DNA in an adult cell’s nucleus is transferred to an egg with it’s nucleus removed to produce an animal identical to its parent. Many will recall this method as responsible for creating Dolly the Sheep.
Currently, the lab charges bereaved dog owners around £7000 per new born identical pup. Research director Yeonwoo Jeong claims that cloning endangered species is the “most meaningful way [this technology can] contribute to society”.
Many species of wolf and wild dog are closely related to domesticated species therefore they believe that once DNA is obtained, the cloning process should be relatively simple. First they want to repopulate the Ethiopian wolf packs, with fewer than 500 individuals remaining in alpine meadows. The lab has already agreed to collaborate with a University in central Ethiopia which hopes to provide clones for repopulation efforts within a year of governmental permission to collect tissue samples.
However, many researchers are concerned that cloning will not actually help conserve endangered species. Some even feel that this could hurt existing conservation efforts. For example, a large population of clones will have little genetic diversity which can result in devastating birth defects for offspring. A lack of genetic variation would also risk a whole population being knocked out by a single disease.
Most importantly, there is an urgent need to address the real problems causing species endangerment. Simply putting more animals back into the same conditions in which they are dying will solve nothing. Claudio Sillero, founder of the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme at the University of Oxford worries that politicians presented with what looks like a quick fix solution will choose this option over more comprehensive, long-term programmes. This will threaten the whole structure of a community, which, by definition is a group of interacting species, living in the same place bound together by network of influences that species have on one another.