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Cloning for conservation: where to draw the line?

The Audubon Nature Institute's Center for Research of Endangered Species in New Orleans hopes to integrate cloning as a tool for conservation. An increasing number of zoos and researchers are banking animal tissues to be preserved in "frozen zoos," which now number close to a dozen worldwide. These serve as an assurance that if an animal goes extinct, its genetic material remains available. The Audubon Nature Institute's research facility contains tanks of liquid nitrogen, which in turn contain the genetic material for over 1,000 species that can remain frozen for hundreds of years. As with any debate over the role of humans in the creation of living creatures, cloning has created an ethical predicament in certain conservation communities.

Critics of cloning argue that conservationists need to focus on issues such as human overpopulation and habitat degradation; they fear that otherwise, there might not be a place for animals to live in the future. The rebuttal by proponents of cloning follows that we could save entire habitats worldwide, but what if there are no animals left to fill them? Another concern expressed by critics is that the technology used for cloning is diverting efforts from the traditional goals of conservation. According to scientists at the Audubon Nature Institute, money that is used to improve cloning technology is donated specifically for that purpose, and is not diverted from contributions for other forms of conservation. They see cloning as yet another tool working for conservation, not against it.

There are also points of debate that could require both critics and proponents to re-evaluate the definition of individual species. The cloning procedure involves using the nuclear DNA from an adult cell of the animal to be cloned and inserting it into the donor's egg as the new DNA. This egg is then implanted in an animal's womb, where it grows into a clone and is born with the title "chimera," meaning a blend of different species. Since cloning for conservation efforts usually involve endangered species, the egg and womb are often supplied by a different, yet similar species. When using an African wildcat's DNA to clone an offspring, scientists used the egg and womb of a domestic house cat. Thus the question remains, if the DNA is from the African wildcat and the egg and womb are from a domestic housecat, can the offspring technically be labeled an African wildcat?

The scientific community may have yet to face the challenge of agreeing on an ethical and moral baseline for conservation, but one thing is certain. As conservation dilemmas become more complicated, zoos, aquariums and research centers appear to formulate equally innovative solutions at an unprecedented pace.

Submitted by Amanda Strandquist American Zoo and Aquarium Association, aStrandquist@AZA.org
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Title Annotation:News From Zoos
Author:Strandquist, Amanda
Publication:Endangered Species Update
Date:Apr 1, 2005
Words:455
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