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Cloned Rhesus Monkey in China Highlights Scientific and Ethical Challenges

This cloned monkey is one of a kind and might remain so for a long time.

By Cassidy Ward
A monkey peers out a window in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)/

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (streaming now on Peacock) is a cautionary tale about the unconstrained pursuit of knowledge. Researcher Will Rodman (James Franco) cooks up what is supposed to be a treatment for Alzheimer’s and accidentally stumbles onto a compound which not only repairs damage to the brain but improves it as well.

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The bean counters at Gen-Sys (the fictional pharmaceutical company where Will works) plan to revolutionize the world through increased intelligence, and they do, just not the way they expected. The lesson is one of caution, particularly when it comes to experimenting with animals so similar to ourselves. And it’s a lesson we might need to be reminded of.

The First Cloned Rhesus Monkey Has Reached Adulthood

Leaving a fictional California for real-world China, researchers have succeeded at cloning a rhesus monkey for the first time. The cloned monkey, named Retro, was born in July of 2020 and, like Caesar before him, Retro was destined for medical research. Cloned animals are of particular interest to researchers because they are genetically identical to one another, allowing for the best possible experimental controls. Retro wasn’t the first cloned rhesus embryo (far from it) but he was the first to be born and live to adulthood. Retro’s origin story was recently published in the scientific journal Nature Communications.

A Rhesus monkey stares.

Retro is the first of his kind and representative of only the second primate species to ever be successfully cloned, following another species of macaque in 2018. To create Retro, researchers used a modified form of Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT), the same process used in the creation of Dolly the sheep. The process involves stripping the nucleus from an egg cell and replacing it with the nucleus of a mature source cell.

Over the course of hundreds of failed attempts, researchers realized the membrane of the placenta wasn’t developing correctly. To sidestep the issue, they replaced the cloned placenta with a placenta developed by an in vitro embryo. Despite that modification, the process has an incredibly low success rate. The team created 113 embryos from which 11 were selected for implantation into a surrogate. Of those, only Retro survived. Retro is nearing four years old and researchers have yet to achieve a second successful birth.

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The study highlights two truths about primate cloning, and the prospect of human cloning in the future. The first is that it’s possible, and the second is that it’s incredibly difficult. Primate cloning is a high cost, low yield endeavor with a non-zero amount of suffering, calling into question whether it’s worth doing at all. Most attempts ended in failure, with a majority of embryos dying a couple of months into gestation. Others made it out of the womb but lived only hours or days, likely due to problems with gene expression during development. For reasons researchers don’t wholly understand, Retro was the exception.

More than three years on, Retro is doing well and developing like his more conventionally conceived peers, but it’s unlikely he’s going to get any cloned primate siblings anytime soon. Maybe that’s for the best.

Watch engineered primates inherit the Earth in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, streaming now on Peacock.

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