Australian scientists said on Thursday they were working on a pilot cloning project to help preserve endangered species but cast doubt on efforts to recreate the extinct Tasmanian tiger.
Professor Alan Trounson said his small team at Melbourne's Monash Institute of Reproduction and Development had been taking skin samples from the endangered northern hairy-nosed wombat for the past year in a cloning project to regenerate the species.
"I think the benefit to endangered species is absolutely phenomenal,'' Trounson told Reuters.
"I think if we could prove this with the wombat, this would be a model that could be used for many other species,'' he said.
Trounson said there were only 80 of the northern wombats left in their natural habitat in Queensland state. The northern wombat is a close relative of the common wombat, a burrowing mammal so numerous in some parts of Australia that it is considered a pest.
Australia has announced two cloning breakthroughs in the past week by creating a cloned merino sheep and a cloned calf using technology similar to that used to produce Dolly, the world's first cloned sheep, in Scotland three years ago.
Last week the Australian Museum announced a more ambitious program to try to recreate the Tasmanian tiger, a marsupial wolf believed to have died out in 1936.
The museum said it extracted high-quality DNA from heart and liver samples from a Tasmanian tiger pup preserved since 1866 and hopes to generate a cell from that to be used in reproduction.
"While there are similar extinct animal cloning projects elsewhere in the world, the Australian Museum's project is the first to find good quality DNA,'' the museum's professor Michael Archer said.
DNA is a unique genetic fingerprint and it is the molecule which transmits hereditary characteristics.
But Trounson doubted the Tasmanian tiger project would be a success because there were no species remotely close enough to act as surrogates and because taking DNA still did not guarantee a healthy cell could be generated to use for reproduction.
"You can clone the DNA but that doesn't get you a cell that you could use for getting an animal,'' he said.
"The chance of doing anything with an extinct animal like that is so close to zero that you couldn't compute it.''
There were also major concerns that the habitat to sustain viable numbers of extinct species no longer existed. This was not necessarily the case with endangered animals, he said.
"It's absolutely crucial to preserve habitats, but also animal populations as much as we can,'' Trounson said.
Australia's GeneEthics Network also warned against trying to recreate extinct species.
"You would just have an animal that wouldn't have a mate and that would just live out its life in a zoo,'' GeneEthics director Bob Phelps told Reuters.
Trounson said established cells taken from the wombat skin samples had been frozen. His team hopes to use the common wombat as a surrogate for the cell nucleus and to carry the embryo to term.
Australia's cloned sheep and calf were created by fusing cultured cells with an unfertilized egg.
Cloning cells for reproduction was less invasive than taking sperm and eggs for artificial insemination, Trounson said.
11 th May 2000
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