These Baby Macaques Are The World's First Primate Clones

Images of Zhong Zhong (ZZ) and Hua Hua (HH), two clones created via somatic cell nuclear transfer using fetal monkey fibroblasts, at 20 and 34 days after birth, respectively. Liu et al./ Cell, 2018

Aliyah Kovner 24 Jan 2018, 22:09

A medical frontier has been broken with the announcement that Chinese biologists successfully cloned two macaque monkeys.

This is the first time that true clones of a primate species have been born, opening a door to both sophisticated medical breakthroughs and moral quagmires.

The process, now detailed in the journal Cell, was developed over several years by a team at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai. If it proves to be reproducible, the technique could create large groups of monkeys with pre-engineered genetic backgrounds – ideal subjects for studying human diseases and testing new treatments.

In multiple statements and interviews, the researchers emphasized that they have no intention of applying their findings to human cloning attempts.

“For the cloning of primate species, including humans, the technical barrier is now broken,” said study author Mu-Ming Poo to National Geographic. “However, the reason we chose to break this barrier is to produce animal models that are useful for human medicine.”

"With all this improvement, along with the high standards of ethical concerns, I think that Chinese society will accept this,” Poo continued. “I hope that societies in Western countries will realize once we demonstrate the cloned monkeys’ usefulness in curing disease, they will gradually change their mind.”

The prototypical, identical female long-tailed macaques are now six and eight weeks old, and appear healthy thus far. Named after a word for the Chinese people, Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua were created using somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) – the same cloning technique that produced Dolly the sheep in 1996.

SCNT is performed by removing the nucleus of an unfertilized egg cell and replacing it with the nucleus of an existing cell taken from a donor of the same species. Now containing the full set of genetic information required to create a living organism, the egg is chemically induced to divide inside a controlled incubator environment. When the resulting clump of cells is large enough, it is then implanted into a surrogate mother's uterus to be carried to term. 

Photos taken during the process of somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). Liu et al/Cell, 2018
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