Scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences announced Wednesday that they had successfully cloned the first monkeys ever using a more advanced version of the complex technique used to clone Dolly the Sheep in 1996. Dogs, cats and pigs have all been cloned in the time since Dolly gave birth to six genetically identical lambs, but Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua are the first primates to be cloned using the somatic cell transfer method.
Other monkeys have been cloned by the simpler method of splitting embryos (similar to how twins are made) but these cuties were created by reconstructing the nuclei of unfertilized eggs by removing and replacing the DNA. Until now, cloning via this method in primates has resulted in certain genes required to make the embryo develop properly not “turn on.” By adding an extra cluster of molecules to the egg before implantation, the scientists were able to update the method and activate those genes at the right time for development. Enter Zhong Zhong, Hua Hua and a whole lot of questions.
#BREAKING: China successfully clones world’s first macaques from somatic cells by method that made Dolly the sheep 20 years ago (Photos provided by Chinese Academy of Sciences) pic.twitter.com/kg4myOwsZP
— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) January 24, 2018
Since monkeys are primates — you know, the same order as humans — it means we’re one step closer to being about to clone people. And for most of us, that’s a little concerning. Thankfully, the authors of the study write that they have no intentions of attempting to clone humans, but they would like their findings to spark a larger debate on the ethical implications of cloning and the laws and regulations that need to be put into place surrounding it.
Genetics Professor Darren Griffin told CNN that while the success is “impressive technically,” his concerns are that developments like these could create a “slippery slope” where we get progressively closer to human cloning without actual regulations in place. Questions like “Does a clone have the same rights as a naturally-born human?” and “Is it even legal to clone humans?” need to be answered definitively and soon.
China’s monkey clones are named Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua
“Zhonghua” = Chinese for “Chinese”
Double it, cut it in half and put it the pieces together.
That’s some epic clone-inspired wordplay right there.https://t.co/esew9g9b3h pic.twitter.com/FAPhkLeKOu
— Josh K. Elliott (@joshkelliott) January 24, 2018
On the sidelines of that ethical debate, there is another one too: the dilemma of animal testing. An opinion piece in The Independent pointed out that genetic testing that fails often results in animals who are deformed and live for a few days, weeks or months in extreme pain. In this particular experiment, there were 79 embryos implanted and the surviving results are the two monkeys that were introduced Wednesday. That’s a lot of failed attempts, but the counterargument is that the work is in the interest of curing human diseases.
The goal of this particular project is to create identical clones so that individual genes can be altered under controlled circumstances to learn more about possible cures for genetic diseases like Alzheimer’s, autism, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s. The Chinese government is planning on expanding the lab in the next few decades to hopefully make great strides in treating these currently-incurable ailments.
If you’re not sure how to feel about this, you’re not alone. Pretty much no one does. Should we be terrified? Should we be excited? Are we going to be cloning ourselves and harvesting our own organs in a few years? Who knows?
In the meantime, the caretakers of Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua say that they are developing normally and are “very active and healthy” with no signs of abnormalities. When they are a little older, the monkeys will undergo mental tests to ensure that their brains are developing properly too.
— China Daily (@ChinaDailyUSA) January 25, 2018