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Conservation of Wildcats through cloning

Dolly the domestic sheep was the first successful mammal to be cloned back in 1996. This breakthrough made the cloning of other animals a realistic option in a period of increased extinction rates as it provides the potential to conserve the world’s endangered species.

Embryologist Dr Bill Ritchie has initiated a study to help save the wildcat population in Scotland as numbers are thought to be at approximately 400 individuals. In previous years, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) suggested the use of cloning to boost the population of wildcats as it has proved successful in other species such as wolves.

The cloning process takes place in three major steps. A nucleus from an adult cell is extracted and implanted into an unfertilised oocyte (with the original nucleus already removed). The new cell is forced through the stages of mitosis by an electric shock until it forms a blastocyst. It is at this stage the blastocyst can be implanted into a surrogate mother where it will develop like a normal pregnancy. However, there is one important difference; the offspring produced are genetically identical to the organism the nucleus was taken from.

However, finding a suitable source of pure wildcat DNA could be problematic, as a high proportion of the population have bred with domestic cats resulting in hybrids. Once pure sources are obtained, DNA samples can be taken (without the demise of the individual) and implanted into an in-house wildcat/domestic cat hybrid with the offspring being released into the wild when they have reached a suitable age.

Before this technique can be used to reverse the damage done to natural populations, more research and improvements to the technique must be made. This highlights the importance of the use of genetics in conservation for the future of the world’s remaining species.

By Haley Dolton

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