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Chinese scientists clone a rhesus monkey for the first time

Over two decades since Dolly the sheep’s groundbreaking cloning, scientists have achieved a significant milestone by successfully cloning a rhesus monkey (Macaca mulatta), a species closely related to humans. 

This feat was accomplished by experts at the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, who used somatic cells from a rhesus monkey to create a genetically identical copy.

Cloning technology 

The clone, which has been healthy for more than two years since its birth, marks a significant advancement in cloning technology, particularly in a species so closely related to humans. 

The cloning process employed somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), a technique that involves transferring the DNA of a somatic cell, such as a skin cell, into an egg cell whose nucleus has been removed.

Low success rate

Dr. Qiang Sun and his team, the same group that cloned the crab-eating macaque monkeys in 2017, led this latest effort. The SCNT technique reprograms the genetic material in the nucleus, allowing the egg to divide and form a cloned embryo, supported by a healthy placenta.

However, the cloning efficiency for most mammal species remains extremely low, with high mortality rates both during gestation and shortly after birth. The team’s success came with only one surviving cloned animal out of 113 initial embryos, a success rate of less than one percent.

Difficulty of cloning

Dr. Lluís Montoliu, an expert at the National Center for Biotechnology in Spain, not involved in the new cloning project, highlights the difficulty of such experiments. 

“Both the cloning of crab-eating macaques and Rhesus monkeys demonstrate two things: first, it is possible to clone primates, and second, it is extremely difficult to succeed with these experiments, with such low efficiencies, once again ruling out human cloning,” he said.

Ethical concerns

While the cloning of various mammals has been achieved since Dolly’s birth in 1996, the cloning of primates like monkeys and potentially humans raises significant ethical concerns. Dr. Montoliu emphasizes that human cloning is “extraordinarily difficult and ethically unjustifiable,” deeming it unnecessary and debatable.

The experiment, which could not have been conducted in Europe due to EU legislation on animal experimentation, raises questions about the ethical implications of cloning primates. 

The EU legislation prohibits the use of non-human primates in experiments unless it’s for investigating serious diseases affecting humans or the primate species itself, criteria not met in this experiment. 

Despite these concerns, the research offers valuable insights into the possibilities and limitations of cloning technology in closely human-related species.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Communications.

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