Researchers in China have cloned a wild Arctic wolf – and they’re hoping the controversial genetic technology can now be used to help save other species under threat as the world edges toward an extinction crisis.
On Monday, the Beijing-based company Sinogene Biotechnology unveiled the female wolf clone, named Maya by scientists, marking 100 days since she was born on June 10.
Maya, a grey-brown pup with a bushy tail, is in healthy condition, said the company. During a news conference, it showed videos of Maya playing and resting.
“After two years of painstaking efforts, the arctic wolf was cloned successfully. It is the first case of its kind in the world,” said Mi Jidong, the company’s general manager, at the news conference, according to Chinese state media.
The Arctic wolf, also known as the white wolf or polar wolf, is a subspecies of grey wolf native to the High Arctic tundra, in Canada’s northern Arctic Archipelago. Its conservation status – the metric used to determine how close a species is to extinction – is considered low risk, since its Arctic habitat is remote enough to evade hunters, according to the World Wildlife Fund. But climate change is increasingly threatening its food supply, while human development like roads and pipelines are encroaching on its territory.
Sinogene launched its Arctic wolf cloning project in 2020, in collaboration with the polar theme park Harbin Polarland, it said in a statement posted on the Twitter-like platform Weibo.
To create Maya, the company used a process called somatic cell nuclear transfer – the same technique that was used to create the first-ever mammal clone, Dolly the sheep, in 1996.
First, they used a skin sample from the original Arctic wolf – also called Maya, introduced from Canada to Harbin Polarland – to retrieve “donor cells,” which are then injected into a female dog’s egg and carried by a surrogate mother.
The scientists were able to create 85 such embryos, which were transferred into the uteri of seven beagles – resulting in the birth of one healthy Arctic wolf, the newly cloned Maya, according to state media.
The company said in its Weibo post that a second cloned arctic wolf is expected to be born soon.
“Cloning technology provides a good entry point for the protection of endangered wild animals, which is a great contribution to the protection of biodiversity,” said He Zhenming, director of the Institute for Laboratory Animal Resources of China’s National Institute for Food and Drug Control, in the Weibo post.
He added that the successful cloning of Maya was a “landmark event, which is of great significance to the world’s wildlife protection and the restoration of endangered species,” according to the post.
Sinogene said it will also begin working with the Beijing Wildlife Park to research more cloning technology and applications, as well as conducting research on the conservation and breeding of rare and endangered animals in China.
The original Maya died of old age in 2021, according to Global Times. The cloned Maya is now living with her beagle surrogate mother, and will later be housed in Harbin Polarland, open to the public.
It’s not the first time cloning technology has been used by conservation scientists.
In Malaysia, where every Sumatran rhino has died, scientists are hoping to use frozen tissues and cells to give birth to new rhinos using surrogate mothers. And in late 2020, American scientists successfully cloned an endangered wild black-footed ferret, once thought to be globally extinct.
Other scientists are betting on gene editing technology instead – with one team in Australia trying to edit cells from a marsupial to recreate its close relative, the extinct Tasmanian tiger.
These efforts are growing as scientists around the world race to save endangered species, as the Earth nears what is widely considered to be its sixth mass extinction.
There have been five mass extinction events in history, each wiping out between 70% and 95% of the species of plants, animals and microorganisms. The most recent, 66 million years ago, saw dinosaurs disappear.
This sixth mass extinction would be unique, in that it’s being driven by humans – who have already wiped out hundreds of species through wildlife trade, pollution, habitat loss and the use of toxic substances.
A 2020 study found that about a third of all plants and animals could face extinction by 2070 – and things could get even worse if greenhouse gas emissions continue rising rapidly.
But many of these new conservation efforts have also courted controversy, with questions raised about the ethics and health implications of cloning and gene editing.
In Maya’s case, one scientist told the Global Times, more research is needed on whether cloning can cause potential health risks. There also needs to be more guidelines set to determine appropriate use of the technology, he added – such as only cloning extinct or highly endangered species.