Scientists have successfully cloned monkeys, a breakthrough that has broken the barrier to future human cloning.

For the first time in the history of primate biology, Chinese researchers were able to clone monkeys. They used the same technique that brought Dolly the Sheep to the world in the mid-90s. This is the first time that monkeys were successfully cloned and now it raises concerns that the method might be used to perform human cloning.

In a new paper published in the journal Cell, the Shanghai-based researchers led by Qiang Sun from Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Neuroscience explained how they tweaked Dolly’s cloning technique to make it suitable for primates. Eventually, the efforts of the team resulted in the birth of two monkeys.

Chinese researchers successfully cloned primates for the first time! #Cloning #GeneticsClick To Tweet

The two identical long-tailed macaques, named Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua, were born eight and six weeks ago. The Chinese scientists said their work could aid other studies aimed at genetic diseases with such as cancers, metabolic, and immune disorders.

“There are a lot of questions about primate biology that can be studied by having this additional model.” ~ Qiang Sun

First cloned monkeys Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua
First cloned monkeys Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua | China Daily via Reuters

What is Cloning?

Cloning is the process of producing similar populations of genetically identical organisms. It occurs naturally among asexual organisms, allowing them to reproduce identical copies. However, advancements in science paved the way for artificial cloning to be performed in laboratories.

While artificial cloning has been around for over 130 years, it only made headlines in 1996 when British researchers Ian Wilmut and Keith Campbell introduced Dolly the Sheep to the public.

There are two ways of making an exact genetic copy of an organism in a laboratory: artificial embryo twinning and somatic cell nuclear transfer. The latter was the technique used by Wilmut and Campbell to produce an embryo (Dolly) that was carried to term by a surrogate mother.

Dolly the Sheep
Dolly the sheep’s taxidermied remains | Wikimedia | commons.wikimedia.org

Cloned Primates Might Pave the way to Human Cloning

Dolly’s arrival gave rise to conversations about the implications of cloning, eventually bringing human cloning and stem cell research into public scrutiny. While stem cell research has slowly earned the approval of both the public and medical communities in recent years, cloning remains afflicted by many ethical disputes.

READ: Researchers Derive Sensory Interneurons From Stem Cells for the First Time

Following the success of cloning primates, bioethicists from around the world started airing their concerns about the procedure.

“People may wonder: Are human beings next?” Insoo Hyun, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University was quoted as saying. “People have always been worried about the possibility of human cloning. And this is just yet another step in that direction.”

Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua were cloned using the somatic cell nuclear transfer technique. In this technique, the DNA was taken from the nuclei of fetal monkey cells and then transferred into monkey eggs that had their own DNA removed. While the intention behind the cloning experiment is to help disease-related studies, the effort undeniably took us one step closer to human cloning.

“Humans are primates. So (for) the cloning of primate species, including humans, the technical barrier is now broken. The reason … we broke this barrier is to produce animal models that are useful for medicine, for human health,” one of the Chinese researchers, Mu-ming Poo, said in a conference call.

Genetically identical animals are said to be useful in research studies and testing new drugs for a range of diseases before clinical trials. While the Chinese researchers acknowledged the fact that their research could be exploited, they emphasized that they have no interest in cloning a person.

“Technically speaking one can clone human,” Poo went on to say. “But we’re not going to do it. There’s absolutely no plan to do anything on humans.”

Furthermore, the success rate of the cloning technique used by the Chinese researchers is said to be extremely low. In fact, it took 127 eggs and 79 attempts to produce the two live macaque monkeys.

“It remains a very inefficient and hazardous procedure,” said Robin Lovell-Badge, a cloning expert at the Francis Crick Institute in London, who was not involved in the Chinese work. “The work in this paper is not a stepping-stone to establishing methods for obtaining live-born human clones. This clearly remains a very foolish thing to attempt.”

Despite the criticism, the scientists firmly stated that all international guidelines for animal research set by the U.S. National Institute of Health were strictly followed.

“We are very aware that future research using non-human primates anywhere in the world depends on scientists following very strict ethical standards.” -Mu-ming Poo

Do you believe that artificial cloning should be prohibited because it is unethical? Or do you think it paves the way to new discoveries in the treatment of genetic diseases?

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