In an incubator in a lab at Shanghai's Institute of Neuroscience, two female macaques chirp and frolic like any baby monkeys would. But Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua are very different because they've been cloned using a process called somatic cell nuclear transfer, by taking cells from a macaque foetus.
Despite the move-over-Dolly reaction of the media, this experiment was not exactly along the same lines as the sheep cloning done over 21 years ago. Dolly was cloned from an adult ewe although also using the somatic cell method. Since then, several other animals - a total of 23 species of mammals in fact - have been cloned, but cloning primates has not been easy. The Dolly-style method was tried, but resulted in developmental problems - even death. Before the current monkeys were arrived at, a total of 79 embryos were put into 21 surrogate mothers resulting in just six pregnancies. Many voices have been raised against the pain caused to animals during this procedure, but then we experiment on monkeys every day.
Voices have also been raised, in considerable alarm, over the idea of how close we are to cloning human beings, given that monkeys are our closest cousins. However, the group of researchers working on the macaque cloning study - their work is outlined in the journal Cell - has stated right at the outset that they have no such goal.
Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua have every right to look vulnerable and worried as they probably have a few diseases coming their way. Because they are genetically identical, all else can be held equal while treatments are tested. "We performed SCNT using both fetal monkey fibroblasts and adult monkey cumulus cells and successfully produced live birth of monkey offspring carrying nuclear DNA of the donor cell and mitochondria DNA of the oocyte donor monkey. Monkey neonates generated using fetal fibroblasts were healthy, whereas those generated using adult cumulus cells survived only briefly after birth," says their paper. "Our results pave the way for the generation of genetically uniform monkey models for basic research and biomedical applications."
Human cloning is not in the offing as there is no real need for it other than pushing the boundaries of science. It would never work because epigenetic changes due to external conditions prevent exact duplicates from being formed. There are, of course, numerous ethical concerns and human cloning research is banned in many countries. A number of controversy theories have sprung up on the Internet claiming that there are already clones of celebrities and the British royal family; but for now, we will have to content ourselves with Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua.
Guests at a Japanese 'ryokan', or traditional inn, are amazed when all the slippers go off and line themselves up carefully, not a millimetre out of place, in their allotted places. It is actually a demonstration by Nissan of the technology at work in the company's cars. The other self parking objects demonstrated by Nissan include floor cushions that move into their place near the dining table and office chairs that come neatly back to tuck themselves into the edge of the tables. Makes one wonder what it would be like to have everyday objects tidy themselves up some day. The objects, including the slippers, have tiny wheels (and don't seem to slip) and sensors; while they may not be ready for mainstream use, it's not hard to imagine them at work in the foreseeable future.
Self parking cars from top car companies such as Mercedes have already been in India for a few years now and can, even in crowded and chaotic conditions, locate an available parking spot, take permission to park and reverse themselves perfectly into place.