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Scientists Reveal Healthy Clone Of Endangered Javan Banteng

By Rick Weiss
THE WASHINGTON POST -- Scientists have for the first time created a healthy clone of an endangered species, offering powerful evidence that cloning technology can play a role in preserving and even reconstituting threatened and endangered species.

The clone -- a cattle-like creature known as a Javan banteng, native to Asian jungles -- was grown from a single skin cell taken from a captive banteng before it died in 1980. The cell was one of several that had remained frozen in a vial at the San Diego Zoo until last year, when they were thawed as part of an experimental effort to make cloned banteng embryos.

Scientists transferred dozens of such embryos to the wombs of standard beef cows in Iowa last fall, and the first baby banteng clone was born April 1 after gestating for a standard nine and a half months.

“It let out this big bellow and everybody cheered,” said Robert Lanza, a scientist with Advanced Cell Technology, a Worcester, Mass., company that collaborated in the project with the Zoological Society of San Diego and an Iowa high-tech cattle reproduction company.

“It was so surreal,” Lanza said. “There we are, out at this farm in the middle of Iowa, and this beef cow is giving birth to this exotic animal that normally lives in the bamboo forests of Asia.”

A second cloned banteng was born two days later to another cow on the same research farm, but was in poor health Monday and its prospects remained uncertain -- a reminder that scientists still have a lot to learn before mammalian cloning becomes routine.

The only other member of an endangered species ever cloned -- a cattle-like Asian gaur, born in January 2001 -- died of an infection less than two days after birth. By contrast, the first-born banteng “is doing beautifully,” Lanza said. “It’s a beautiful, adorable creature.”

Bantengs, which as adults sport enormous horns and can weigh as much as 1,800 pounds, once roamed in large numbers through the bamboo forests of Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma and other Asian nations. Hunting and habitat destruction have reduced their numbers by more than 80 percent in the past 20 years. Today only 3,000 to 5,000 remain worldwide.

Most worrisome to conservationists, only a handful of large herds remain, so the animals are at risk of becoming dangerously inbred.