Has science gone too far? It’s the question everyone’s actually asking seriously this week, with reports from China indicating that a monkey has been successfully cloned for the first time. While the cloning of animals is controversial as it is, this news should really grab everyone’s attention — for the first time, it’s more public opinion than technical challenge preventing the cloning of humans.
And the technical barrier was high for a while — researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai used the same technique that scientists in Scotland used to clone Dolly the sheep in 1996, the first time a mammal was cloned. It’s taken over 20 years to figure out how to use the same procedure to clone a primate, a long-tailed macaque. Two cloned monkeys, Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua, were born in the last two months, and they’re still alive and healthy — notable, as cloned animals often don’t live very long.
The cloning procedure is called somatic cell nuclear transfer, and while it sounds simple, it’s very hard to do successfully. Scientists remove the nucleus of an egg, then replace it with the nucleus from a cell taken from the animal they want to clone. That’s how Dolly was born, and since 1996, the same procedure has been used successfully to clone other mammals like cows, pigs, and mice. Successfully cloning a primate proved elusive, but as it turns out, elusive is quite the euphemism in the field of cloning — and it has many asking if the potential benefits make the whole enterprise worth it.