Tue, Aug 23, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Scientists thrilled by litters born to cloned wildcats

AFP , WASHINGTON

And then there were eight ... In a potential breakthrough for bioengineering, three cloned African wildcats living in the US have produced two healthy litters, demonstrating for the first time that clones of wild animals can breed.

The successful experiment, unveiled by the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species in New Orleans, Louisiana, over the weekend, appeared to open the way to bringing severely endangered species back from the brink of extinction, scientists said.

But it also raised the question if Jurassic Park a fictional nature preserve teeming with cloned dinosaurs and velociraptors invented by novelist Michael Crichton and popularized in a blockbuster 1993 movie, was getting closer to becoming a reality.

"The science which produced these beautiful kittens is nothing short of wondrous," said Ron Forman, president of the Audubon Nature Institute. "We are thrilled to play a part in a scientific journey holding such enormous potential for the world's animals."

The frisky eight, who sport light brown fur, stripes on the back, perked-up ears, and innocent green-blue eyes, were produced by a feline menage a trois that included Ditteaux, the prolific father, and his two female mates -- Madge and Caty.

The threesome are all clones, who owe their very existence to transfers of frozen embryos taken from two other African wildcats to a domestic cat.

Madge gave birth to the first five kittens on July 26 while Caty delivered three others on Aug. 2, according to the center. Both litters are said to be doing well.

Scientists said the kittens will be shown to the public at Audubon Zoo later on this year. But they will be returned to the research center for more study as they grow up and start displaying their mature wildcat instincts.

If the wildcats do not develop health problems, the experiment will open new breathtaking opportunities, the researchers said.

"By improving the cloning process and then encouraging cloned animals to breed and make babies, we can revive the genes of individuals who might not be reproductively viable otherwise, and we can save genes from animals in the wild," said Betsy Dresser, director of the center.

Clones of long-dead but genetically valuable animals could be introduced back into the population through natural breeding.

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