Edinburgh Zoo pandas ‘could be cloned’

Scientists have been looking for an alternative as Tian Tian has so far been unable to give birth. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Scientists have been looking for an alternative as Tian Tian has so far been unable to give birth. Picture: Ian Rutherford

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SCIENTISTS have taken a significant step towards cloning Edinburgh Zoo’s pandas.

Tian Tian and Yang Guang have failed to mate despite several attempts to encourage them to have cubs.

Now a team of experts have carried out research which could pave the way for the animals to be cloned.

The scientists took tissue samples from the bears’ mouths and managed the complex step of isolate the “building block cells”.

The project - led by experts from the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, Roslin Embryology, the School of Biological and Biomedical Sciences at Durham University and the China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda - is seen as a key first stage of the cloning process.

Roslin Embryology director Dr Bill Ritchie, who helped create Dolly the sheep at the Roslin Institute in 1996, said: “Pandas are strange animals, a bit on an anomaly because of their lifestyle. This is a step in bringing back an endangered species or helping to preserve them in some way.”

Iain Valentine, Director of Giant Pandas for the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, said: “In terms of European giant panda zoos, RZSS is pretty unique. We have three agreements with our Chinese colleagues. One is the ten year loan of Yang Guang; one the ten year loan of Tian Tian; and the other is a research agreement. The giant panda zoo model that we fit into is much closer to American zoos than our European counterparts.

“RZSS is currently facilitating 40 giant panda related projects around the world. Some of these projects we are funding, some we have sought external funding for, some we are collaborating and partnering other organisations, and some we are merely the gatekeepers providing samples like hair or faeces. Excitingly, our experts are currently working with nine universities in the UK.

“All this research work stems from the Giant Panda Research Symposium held in Edinburgh in 2013, when RZSS gathered over 60 experts from around the world to help develop a five-year research plan for giant pandas, with the aim of generating global action on how giant pandas are cared for in zoos around the world and in Chinese reserves.

“This week a scientific paper was published regarding a stem cell production project with a number of other prestigious organisations. Basically stem cells have been produced from swabs. Why is this important? Because it gives conservationists another method of bio-banking genetic resource other than sperm or eggs.

“Cell lines, created from easily collectable samples like cheek swabs, help with research into some of the deadly diseases that pandas are susceptible to – such as distemper, parvovirus and retrovirus. Cell lines allow us to test potential vaccines without having to involve the animals themselves, and they can also be used for tissue repair.

“Importantly, this has nothing to do with cloning, although some key figures involved in the cloning of Dolly the sheep are sharing their expertise as part of the project.”

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