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Copy Cats – cloning to conserve endangered species

Cloning technology has hit the headlines again recently, with the successful cloning of Nicky, a domestic cat as a replacement for a much-loved pet. In the coming year, we may also be hearing reports of the cloning of less well-known cat species.

One of the applications of cloning technology is the preservation of endangered species. Conservationists are currently looking at cloning as a promising technique in maintaining numbers of the South African black-footed cat, a small and elusive species. Following this, we may be seeing clones of the world’s smallest cat, the rusty spotted cat of India and Sri Lanka.

The first successful cat clone, cc, was born in December 2001, following work done by Martha Gomez and her team at the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species in New Orleans. This opened the door to the use of cloning as a conservation methodology. The first experiments involved the African wild cat, Felis lybica, due to its similarity with the domestic cat. In 2003, African wild cats were successfully cloned by transferring wild cat genetic material into enucleated domestic cat eggs, then transferring resulting embryos into surrogate domestic cats. The Audubon Center now has seven surviving African wild cat clones which they aim to breed conventionally.

The next stage in the program is to target rarer cat species. There are dwindling numbers of the South African black-footed cat, Felis nigripes, and so far, no cloned black-foots have survived to term, although a surrogate domestic cat did become pregnant following implantation with black-foot cloned embryos. Live births may be achieved by further refinement of the technique. However, it is also possible that the two species are not sufficiently related to allow successful interspecies cloning. Gomez and her team may next look at transferring normal black-foot embryos to domestic cats to test this possibility further.

The team at the Audubon Center are also preparing to clone the Indian rusty spotted cat using frozen cellular material stored from a cat that died in a US zoo. Only thirteen of these cats remain in captivity, and in the wild, the genetic purity of the species is threatened by interbreeding with domestic cats. Cloning may not guarantee preservation of the species, but it may help.

Cloning looks set to impact on the world of conservation, slowly but surely. In the future we may be using lions to clone and preserve the tiger population. With the success of Nicky, the domestic cat clone, we may be seeing more and more copy cats.

See New Scientist.