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Cloning the Gaur

By Britt Bailey

"The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny." - Jeremy Bentham

We are about to meet "Noah", the first cloned member of an endangered species. Noah is a Gaur, a strikingly colored, white footed member of the ox family that normally lives in Northern India. His birthday has been set by a coterie of white-coated lab scientists in Worcester, MA. If Noah is a success, a company known as Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) will be the first biotechnology company to clone an endangered species.

Noah promises to be the "poster child" for a whole new generation of artificially created animals. While hardly controversial at first blush, the company's efforts raise a host of new questions about the nature of a human-controlled world and how we may decide to populate it with our human-chosen creatures. Advanced Cell Technologies is not, of course, in the business (yet) of cloning rare animals for profit. But, according to Philip Damiani, Ph.D., ACT's researcher and principal investigator, the first endangered animal to be cloned is set to be "the spokesperson for the cloning of endangered species." While the newswire stories hail cloning of scarce creatures as a heroic effort in species resuscitation, ACT's ambitions appear more parochial. Presently, it is concentrating on more self-evidently controversial aspects of genetic engineering, such as producing human pharmaceuticals in milk, and fabricating cloned transgenic animals as donors of cells for transplant therapies.

While the thought of saving species from possible extinction pulls at our heart strings, deeper consideration of the project reveals a darker undercurrent of subterfuge and caution.

First, the animal being cloned is the gaur, Bos frontalis, the large wild ox native to the woodlands of rural India. The gaur family still has 30,000+ members, and while qualifying for endangered status focusing on other more threatened species mabey crucial. While land developers increasingly encroach on its tropical woodland habitat, the animal is poised to be born into a wholly new environment--the laboratory. To achieve this reproductive feat, ACT scientists mimicked their protocol for cloning cows. In this case they inserted 42 early gaur embryos into 32 domestic cows. Eight of the cows became pregnant. Seven of the pregnancies ended in either spontaneous abortions or had their products of conception removed for scientific analysis. The eighth and final pregnant cow is Bessie.

In selectively propagating a genetically unknown "exemplar of the species," ACT appears to be neglecting some of the facets of the basic biology of the animal. Hiring a Public Relations firm, Noonan-Russo Communications, articles were drafted for the AP Wire and Reuters announcing the gaur would be "born" at the end of November. Yet, Damiani admitted "we thought because domestic cows had a 9 month gestation period, Noah would be born in November, but we just realized gaur's have a 10 month gestation period. So, Noah will be born at the end of December." (Actually, the new birth date has been pushed up to January 2, 2001 perhaps to avoid the public relations dead zone between Christmas and the New Year.)

Little seems known about the social and biological effects of cloning endangered animals, especially a herd animal like the Gaur. Can the survival of a single member of a highly social herd animal be considered a bona fide rescue? While other alternatives clearly exist for protecting the genetic lineage of the Gaur, for example, obtaining a cell line and keeping it at hand in perpetuity, the ultimate goal is not to maintain genetic diversity via frozen cell lines. Rather, the company's goal is to produce a visible entity that embodies the essential physical reality of the gaur. But what value will the gaur have if the reasons for its endangered state are not simultaneously addressed?

At issue are the motives and values at stake in creating living organisms from cloned adult cells or artificially maintained cell lines. Currently, it is not too difficult for the genetic material of an egg to be supplanted with foreign DNA. But what will we actually have accomplished when we create a living, breathing animal? Stepping back from the science, we should be asking ourselves what such a recreation of a host animal does to our views and beliefs of nature. Is a cloned animal simply a copy of an original? And if the animals created are simply copies, then what of the embryonic gaurs which never culminated in a fully live animal. Why were so many "sacrificed" in the name of science? Is not each embryo an individual organism in and of itself? Does Noah's birth negate the other clone deaths? How can researchers justify killing (or allowing to die) almost 700 endangered animals to obtain but one survivor?

Cloning to Rescue Species
The gaur, like most endangered species, is having difficulty thriving because its habitat is being diminished. In particular, it is being threatened by pressure exerted on its territory, through logging and the building of roads, homes, ranches and factories. If a species were truly to be rescued through cloning, some animals would need to be re-established in the wild. But, to introduce an animal back into a stressed ecosystem is questionable under the best of circumstances, and may even be an act of cruelty.

Consider a more radical thought experiment: the human species is becoming extinct because endocrine disruption is so widespread that we cannot reproduce effectively. To reverse our imminent extinction, a cell line is created and clones are then produced to repopulate our dwindling species. Of course, the resulting humans would have to be placed back into a habitat which is by definition unfit for survival. Not only will the clone likely have a quality of life which is severely compromised, but would not all that we are trying to achieve become moot if the damaged surroundings hamper its continued existence?

More to the point, non-human animals evolve and acquire adaptations to highly specific habitats. A diminished habitat would by nature stress such a narrowly adapted creature. Hence, if gaurs were to be re-introduced into the wild, the tropical woodland habitat they depend on would first need to be restored. But regeneration of their natural environment is not nearly as sexy as the successful propagation of an actual wild oxen. Perhaps we are putting the ox before the cart.

Another issue is inherent in population decline: the loss of genetic variability. When the number of animals becomes too small, the population loses a key factor in genetic diversity, the "polymorphisms" that tend to keep populations diverse and healthy. A good example of such polymorphisms in human populations is the plethora of blood groups and hemoglobin types, which among other things, gives us protection against some forms of malaria.

So, along with restoring the habitat of a particular species, the gaur would need to be re-introduced as a herd. Think for a moment about a cloned herd in an artificially reclaimed environment. Even if we were successful, are we ready to accept a simulated species in a renovated habitat? And how would we continue to ensure sufficient genetic diversity among its members if we could not control the normal dominance patterns that usually give a single male the greatest genetic contribution.

Cloning for Captive Breeding Programs
By the time Noah arrives in this world, the sweep of ethical discussion may be moot. And, by the time Noah steps out of the flashbulbs, ACT acknowledges he will never end up in the wild. In fact, in spite of the public relations effort to twist and pull on our heartfelt hopes of rescuing a dying species, ACT's spokesperson Damiani acknowledged most of the cloned endangered animals will end up in zoos. Said Damiani, "We will not need to remove an endangered animal from the wild for zoos, we will just obtain skin cells from animals in the wild and clone them."

But should we be creating laboratory animals for public gawking? The idea of satisfying the sometimes prurient curiosity of the public is more akin to the ethics of P.T. Barnum than of Albert Schweitzer. Looking at copies of animals will create a whole new take on the meaning of "a visit to a zoo." Such a use of cloned "material" highlights the problems inherent in the exclusive use of animals for our entertainment and possible education. True, under the best of circumstances, learning about animals can provide a renewed sense of reverence for nature as we begin to appreciate their lives. Adult humans may nonetheless be hard pressed to explain to a wondering child why scientists allowed the animals to be regenerated for zoo life while allowing all their brethren to succumb in the wild.

We are at a juncture where we can either disregard the considerations of animal rights through cloning and confining animals, or we can selflessly begin to curb the very activities that are decimating animals in the wild. Instead of the millions being spent to clone a single member of a complex web of animals in danger of extinction, why not restore their habitat? To do less is to invite the impression of capitalizing upon the extinction of species to create novel commercial adventures.