In late November and early December, researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Neuroscience witnessed something incredible: The birth of two genetically identical long-tailed macaques named Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua—a nod to the term ‘Zonghua,’ meaning the Chinese people. These monkeys are the first primates to be cloned using a technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), the same method that was used to create the first animal clone, Dolly the sheep, over 20 years ago.
The researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences are optimistic that the ability to produce genetically identical monkeys will allow unprecedented insights into human diseases, but the birth of Zhong and Hua is also a big deal for the science of cloning more generally. Primates have been notoriously resistant to cloning efforts over the past two decades due to the unique complexity of their cellular machinery. The birth of these macaque clones is a proof of concept that could lead to the cloning of other primates, and perhaps, eventually, humans.
“The technical barrier of cloning primate species, including humans, is now broken,” Qiang Sun, the lead researcher on the project at the Chinese Academy of Sciences said during a press conference on Tuesday night. “In principle, it can be applied to humans. However, the reason we broke this barrier is to produce animal models that are useful for medicine and human health. There was no intention to apply this method to humans.”