Introducing the world’s first monkey clones

Too close for comfort? The monkeys were cloned after “much failure”, said one scientist.

Will humans be next? For the first time, Chinese scientists have successfully cloned two macaque monkeys — the first primates to survive the process. Now, “The genie’s out of the bottle.”

Their names are Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua (from the word zhonghua, meaning the Chinese people). At six and eight weeks old, they are still bottle fed by the humans who brought them into the world. They share their home with a Hello Kitty toy.

They are also clones. “The technical barrier” for cloning primates, including humans, “is now broken,” said the lead author of a study about the two identical macaques yesterday. They are the first primates to survive the process.

It was not easy, even though Dolly the sheep was first cloned over 20 years ago.

In simple terms, cloning involves transferring the nucleus from one cell into an egg, and then chemically encouraging it to grow like any other embryo. Eventually it is implanted into a surrogate which gives birth to a baby clone, which is genetically identical to the cell donor.

Over 20 different animal species have been cloned since, but success with primates has always proved elusive. According to National Geographic, clone DNA gets “spooled, bunched up, and tagged” as the embryo develops. Scientists must “nudge” it in the right direction, a complex process that has taken years to perfect in monkeys. This study took 127 eggs to get just two that survived.

It is still a huge medical breakthrough. In scientific trials, identical clones are the perfect test subjects, and macaques are far closer to humans than mice or sheep.

But the news has reignited a serious ethical debate about future human clones. The researchers say they have “no intention” of applying the method to people. However, the science is now one step closer to that reality.

Many scientists are against this idea. It is illegal in most countries, and the UN has declared it “incompatible with human dignity”. Arguments in favour — such as the benefits to medical science — could become pointless as computer modelling and gene editing get more advanced.

So will human cloning ever happen?

Mini-me

Of course not, say some. Full human clones are the stuff of science fiction; no real-life scientist or government would ever allow it to happen. The ethical debate is too thorny, and the arguments in favour are too weak. Unlike IVF (which was also controversial when it was first developed) there is no sympathetic reason why someone would want to clone themselves. There is nothing to worry about.

Don’t be so sure, respond others. Once something is possible, and the knowledge is out there, it is hard to stop people from doing it if they really want to. And some people do want to. All it would take is one scientist to break the law and cross the line, and the debate would shift forever. Once people got used to the idea, the demand for human clones might soon grow.

You Decide

  1. How does the photograph of Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua make you feel?
  2. Will the world see a full human clone in your lifetime?

Activities

  1. Draw a diagram which shows the steps in the cloning process used to create the two monkeys.
  2. There is a large body of literature exploring the consequences of human cloning. Have a go at writing your own short story on the subject. Try to address the following questions: why would scientists decide to clone a human? How would the world react? And how would the clone respond once it was old enough to understand what had happened?

Some People Say...

“If God made the original, then making copies should be fine.”

Douglas Coupland

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
This study implanted 79 cloned embryos in 21 surrogate monkeys. Of these, only six turned into pregnancies, and only two monkeys (Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua) were alive when they were born. They were created using the DNA of another macaque foetus, as two baby monkeys cloned with adult DNA did not survive. This distinction did not happen with Dolly and other animals.
What do we not know?
Whether human cloning is possible. Although this news makes it more likely, scientists will never know for sure unless they try. It is also impossible to know what effect human clones would have on society — they could be treated with fear and suspicion, as in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go. Alternatively, they could become as unremarkable as IVF babies are today.

Word Watch

First
Technically, a monkey called Tetra was cloned by splitting an embryo in 1999. However, these are the first monkeys cloned with the “Dolly” method.
Dolly
The sheep was the first animal to be successfully cloned using this method.
Nucleus
A tiny structure inside the cell of a living thing which contains its genetic material.
Cell
The macaques only survived when the cell used in the cloning process was from a foetus. Clones created from adult cells did not survive.
Test subjects
The scientists plan to use the monkeys to investigate the genetics of Alzheimer’s. By having multiple test subjects with the same DNA, they can be sure that a difference in genes or environmental factors did not affect an experiment’s results.
IVF
In vitro fertilisation is when an embryo is made outside the human body and implanted into a womb. The first IVF baby was born in 1978, and was highly controversial. Now, the practice is widely accepted.
Do want to
Clonaid, a pro-cloning company based in the USA, says that: “A surprising number” of its supporters “come from the Los Angeles/Hollywood area.”

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