Researchers in China have cloned a wild Arctic wolf and hope the controversial gene technology can now be used to help save other threatened species as the world moves towards an extinction crisis.
On Monday, the Beijing-based company Sinogene Biotechnology unveiled the female wolf clone, named Mayan by scientists, on the occasion of the 100 days of its birth, on June 10.
Maya, a gray-brown pup with a bushy tail, is in good condition, the company said. During a press conference, she showed videos of Maya playing and resting.
“After two years of strenuous efforts, the arctic wolf has been successfully cloned. It is the first such case in the world, “Mi Jidong, the company’s general manager, said at a press conference, according to Chinese state media.
The arctic wolf, also known as the white wolf or polar wolf, is a subspecies of gray wolf native to the upper arctic tundra, in Canada’s northern arctic archipelago. Its conservation status – the metric used to determine how close a species is to extinction – is considered low-risk, as its Arctic habitat is remote enough to escape hunters, according to the World Wildlife Fund. But climate change is increasingly threatening its food supply, while human development such as roads and pipelines is invading its territory.
Sinogene launched its Arctic wolf cloning project in 2020, in partnership with the Harbin Polarland polar theme park, he said in a statement posted on Twitter-like platform Weibo.
To create Maya, the company used a process called somatic cell nuclear transfer, the same technique used to create the first-ever mammalian clone, Dolly the sheep, in 1996.
First, they used an original Arctic wolf skin sample – also called Maya, introduced from Canada to Harbin Polarland – to recover “donor cells”, which are then injected into a bitch’s egg and carried by a surrogate mother.
The scientists were able to create 85 of these embryos, which were transferred into the wombs of seven beagles, resulting in a healthy Arctic wolf, the newly cloned Maya, according to state media.
The company said in its Weibo post that a second cloned Arctic wolf is expected to be born soon.
“Cloning technology provides a good entry point for the protection of endangered wild animals, which is a great contribution to biodiversity protection,” said He Zhenming, director of the Institute for Laboratory Animal Resources. ‘China National Institute for Food and Drug Control, in the Weibo post.
He added that the successful cloning of Maya was a “landmark event, which is of great importance to the protection of world wildlife and the restoration of endangered species,” according to the post.
Sinogene said it will also begin collaborating with Beijing Wildlife Park to research further cloning technologies and applications, as well as conducting research on the conservation and breeding of rare and endangered animals in China.
The original Maya died of old age in 2021, according to Global Times. The cloned Maya now lives with her beagle surrogate mother and will later be housed in Harbin Polarland, open to the public.
This is not the first time that cloning technology has been used by conservation scientists.
In Malaysia, where every Sumatran rhino has died, scientists hope to use frozen tissue and cells to give birth to new rhinos using surrogate mothers. And in late 2020, American scientists successfully cloned an endangered wild black-footed ferret once thought to be globally extinct.
Other scientists are betting on gene editing technology instead, with a team in Australia trying to modify the cells of a marsupial to recreate its close relative, the extinct Tasmanian tiger.
These efforts are escalating as scientists around the world race to save endangered species as Earth approaches what is widely considered its sixth mass extinction.
There have been five mass extinction events in history, each wiping out between 70% and 95% of the species of plants, animals and microorganisms. The most recent, 66 million years ago, saw dinosaurs disappear.
This sixth mass extinction would be unique, as it is led by humans, who have already wiped out hundreds of species through wildlife trade, pollution, habitat loss and the use of toxic substances.
A 2020 study found that roughly a third of all plants and animals could face extinction by 2070, and things could get worse if greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow rapidly.
But many of these new conservation efforts have also sparked controversy, with questions raised about the ethical and health implications of cloning and gene editing.
In Maya’s case, a scientist told the Global Times, more research is needed on whether cloning can cause potential health risks. More guidelines also need to be established to determine the appropriate use of the technology, she added, such as cloning only extinct or highly threatened species.
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