February 3, 2009 | 1
The last Pyrenean ibex (Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica) died nine years ago, the victim of loneliness (and a falling tree). But for a brief, seven-minute window, the extinct species may have recently been resurrected, thanks to cloning.
Using skin samples taken from the last ibex before she died, and domestic goats as the hosts for implanted embryos, scientists say they brought a cloned Pyrenean ibex to term, although severe lung defects killed it after seven minutes. (Other cloned animals, including sheep, have been born with similar lung defects, according to The Daily Telegraph, and Dolly the sheep died of a lung infection, although it may have been unrelated to her being a clone.) Project leader Jose Folch told The Independent newspaper that "the delivered kid was genetically identical to the" extinct Pyrenean ibex.
The cloning attempt — the first "successful" cloning of an extinct species outside of Jurassic Park — was led by Folch, of Spain’s Centre of Food Technology and Research of Aragon with help from colleagues at the National Research Institute of Agriculture and Food. They extracted DNA using a technique called nuclear transfer, then implanted embryos into 57 surrogate goats. Seven pregnancies, and one live birth, resulted.
"Our present work encourages appropriately storing tissues and cells of all endangered species or suitable animals, as they may be useful for future cloning-based conservation," Folch said. Following the first successful attempt to clone a troubled species in 2001, other scientists are giving it a shot: The endangered northern white rhino, the extinct Tasmanian tiger, and the mammoth, for example.
But the question remains, could an extinct species really be brought back to life through cloning? One seven-minute lifespan does not translate to much quality of life, and even if the kid had lived, it wouldn’t have had a family, so who would have taught it how to behave like a Pyrenean ibex? Could enough members of a species be cloned to allow it to be reintroduced into the wild, and could they be taught to survive on their own, or would cloned animals have to live in captivity for the rest of their lives?
Seven minutes, of course, wasn’t quite enough to answer these questions.
Image: Spanish Ibex (Capra pyrenaica) / Wikipedia