'Dolly' Scientist bids to help save the Scottish Wildcat

‘Dolly' Scientist bids to help save the Scottish Wildcat
A LEADING member of the team that cloned Dolly the sheep more than 15 years ago is turning his attention to helping save one of Scotland's most endangered indigenous species, the Scottish Wildcat - which is also known as the ‘Scottish Tiger'.
Embryologist Dr Bill Ritchie is working on a new cloning technique, which it is hoped will become a template for other initiatives aimed at cloning endangered animals.
This iconic animal is now critically endangered due mainly to the loss of habitat and hybridisation with the domestic cat. These problems have resulted in an estimate of only 400 animals remaining in existence.
The project has some funding from Genecom Ltd, the knowledge transfer and commercialisation arm of the Moredun Research Institute in Midlothian and the Institute for Animal Health, but Dr Ritchie is looking for further financial backing to help stop the creature becoming extinct.
Hybridisation - crossing with domestic animals - may also be the wildcat's salvation, as its ability to hybridise also allows the possibility of being able to use domestic cat eggs as recipients for cloning.
"This crossing indicates that there is a very good chance of cloning being successful cross species, as only animals which are very close genetically have been successfully cloned," says Dr Ritchie.
"Several cat species have been cloned using the domestic cat, as well as the wolf using dog eggs and the Mouflon (a type of wild sheep) using the domestic sheep. It is very difficult to find pure wildcats due to their crossing with domestic animals, but modern scientific techniques are able to select animals which are pure bred. Cells collected from these animals by taking a small piece of skin would be cultured to supply cells for the cloning process."
Dr Ritchie says eggs from domestic cats, which would be available from tissue recovered during spaying of the animal, could be used as the starting material for the cloning process.
An initiative from the Royal Zoological Society which is being carried out in the Cairngorms to try to prevent hybridisation with the domestic cat could also be beneficial.
"Domestic cats are being spayed free of charge in the Eastern Cairngorms to try to protect the animals, but this may be a convenient source of eggs.
Dr Ritchie adds: "We spend lots of time travelling to Asia to see rare and endangered species there, but seldom think of the loss of our own wildcat, which is even more endangered than many of the animals we travel half way round the world to see. This secretive, Scottish, predator is probably more difficult to see that many other big cats but must be preserved if we are to have a healthy ecosystem."
The technique used for cloning the animal would be similar to that used to clone Dolly the Sheep, but it has moved on by using eggs which can be recovered from material discarded during spaying. The immature eggs would be removed from the tissue and matured with cells which would supply the
correct environment for the maturation of the eggs. This development from an immature state to an egg suitable for cloning would be carried out in vitro and would probably take 24 hours, but would then be suitable for trying to produce an embryo which would eventually be transferred to a surrogate animal.
The process of cloning would not increase the gene pool of the wildcat, but samples collected from as many animals as possible would prevent it from reaching a critical state where it would be impossible for the wildcat to find a mate.
"Many animals housed in zoos fail to breed because the social and nutritional status of the animal is not met and because the animals do not get the exercise needed to keep them in breeding condition," says Dr Ritchie.
"Animals which do not breed in there early years will often not breed in later life, even if the conditions are suitable for reproduction, but these animals would be able to supply cells for the cloning process.
"Dolly was a great achievement, which broke the scientific teaching that ‘once a cell is differentiated it cannot be undifferentiated' and led to many breakthroughs which are in the pipeline at the moment, and this is just another use for the technology which was proved just a few years ago."
Further information from:
Greg Russell,
Media Co-ordinator,
Edinburgh Science Triangle
t: 0131 200 6386
m: 07889 404933
e: [email protected]
Dr Bill Ritchie
e:[email protected]