Scientists Clone An Endangered Przewalski’s Horse For The First Time, And It's Adorable

The cloned Przewalski’s foal, named Kurt, at the Texas veterinary facility of ViaGen Equine collaborator, Timber Creek Veterinary, on Aug. 28. Scott Stine

Meet Kurt, the world’s first successfully cloned Przewalski’s horse who could help save this endangered and desperately cute species of wild horse.

The cloned foal was born on August 6 as part of a collaborative project between Revive & Restore, ViaGen Equine, and San Diego Zoo Global Frozen Zoo® using 40-year-old cryopreserved genetic material, according to an announcement by the zoo. He has been named “Kurt” in honor of Kurt Benirschke, a renowned scientist who set up the Frozen Zoo and played a key role in the cryopreservation of genetic material from a number of endangered species.

“This new Przewalski’s colt was born fully healthy and reproductively normal,” Shawn Walker, chief science officer at ViaGen Equine, said in a statement. “He is head butting and kicking, when his space is challenged, and he is demanding milk supply from his surrogate mother.”

The young male, born to a surrogate, is a clone of a Przewalski’s (pronounced “shuh-VAL-skees”) horse stallion named Kuporovic that was born in 1975 in the UK, before being transferred to the US in 1978, living there until 1998. His genes had been stored at the SDZG Frozen Zoo® since 1980, waiting for the necessary cloning technology to become available. 

“A central tenet of the Frozen Zoo®, when it was established by Dr Benirschke, was that it would be used for purposes not possible at the time,” explained Oliver Ryder, PhD, director of genetics at San Diego Zoo Global. “Now, the living cells in the Frozen Zoo are contributing to reversing losses of genetic diversity and contributing to population sustainability. The cells of hundreds of Przewalski’s horses reside in the Frozen Zoo, and form the basis for new opportunities in applying scientific research to preserve species into the future.”

Przewalski's horses are the last truly wild horse. They're named after Nikołaj Przewalski, a Russian explorer who first discovered the horse in 1881 after hearing tales of its existence. Once common in the steppes of central Asia, the species was extinct in the wild until a number of individuals were reintroduced to its native habitat in Mongolia. Nevertheless, the species is still in a lot of trouble. Since all living horses are related to 12 Przewalski’s horses born in the wild, their genetic diversity remains low. Once Kurt is old enough to breed, it's hoped the cloned individual will help to bring back some much-needed genetic diversity for the Przewalski’s horse population.

“This colt is expected to be one of the most genetically important individuals of his species,” said Bob Wiese, PhD, chief life sciences officer at San Diego Zoo Global. 

From macaque monkeys to cats, a whole host of animal species have been cloned in recent years. Perhaps most famous of all was "Dolly" the sheep, the first mammal to have been successfully cloned from an adult somatic cell in 1996. One lesser-known story, however, is that of the Pyrenean ibex: an extinct animal that was resurrected by cloning in 2003.


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