What is behind the controversy in the cloning of grey wolves?
Following the Korean achievement of cloning the world’s first dog in 2005, a paper about another first by Korean scientists in cloning gray wolves, an endangered species, caught the eyes of the world. Recently, however, controversy broke out about this paper, which was withdrawn last week from the Web site of the journal that published it. It can be confusing without knowing the full story behind the series of controversies surrounding Korean cloning researchers.
Q. Why is cloning wolves so important?
A. Two female wolves, named Snuwolf and Snuwolffy, were the first wolves ever to be cloned. The two wolf pups were born on Oct. 18 and Oct. 26 last year, to different surrogate mothers. They weighed only 430 grams and 530 grams (about 1 pound) respectively at the time of birth, but now weigh over 20 kilograms.
This cloning achievement was published in the March 2007 edition of the international science journal Cloning and Stem Cells, with Lee Byeong-chun and Shin Nam-sik as the main authors. Both are professors at Seoul National University’s veterinary college.
At the time, Lee said that the achievement was important because it opened the door on a possible method of preserving threatened species. The grey wolf has been designated endangered by the Environment Ministry as it has not been seen in the wild for 20 years. Ten grey wolves are living in Seoul Grand Park in Gyeonggi province.
Lee pointed out that it is difficult to preserve the species with artificial insemination or other in vitro fertilization (IVF) methods because the wolves are so few in number; current IVF techniques require large numbers of mature eggs, which is why cloning could open up possibilities to prevent the extinction of an endangered species.
How was it done?
The wolves were cloned by taking adult cells from a female wolf bred in a zoo outside Seoul and placing them into 251 eggs taken from female dogs, which were like empty “shells” because their genetic material had been removed. Somatic cells body cells that are not part of reproduction were taken from the wolf’s ear and implanted into the ova (eggs) of a dog, which had had their nuclei removed.
The fertilized eggs were transplanted to 12 dogs that acted as surrogate mothers.
The cloned wolves produced were recently donated to Seoul Grand Park, a zoo in Gyeonggi province, a short drive away from Seoul.
In April 2005 the university’s animal cloning research team created Snuppy, the world’s first cloned male dog, and succeeded in cloning three female dogs in June and July 2006, also a first.
The wolf cloning project was started before fraud on human stem cell research by Professor Hwang Woo-suk, who cloned the first dog, came to light. Hwang is still named as one of the researchers in the paper on cloning the gray wolves.
After the paper was published, however, some people pointed out on the Korean science community Web site BRICs that a calculation was incorrect.
Postings on this Web site, which is supposedly made up of younger members of the science community, accused Lee of manipulating statistics to exaggerate the success rate of the wolf cloning.
The wolf cloning team was not only accused of allegedly miscalculating figures regarding probability but also for incorrectly arranging numbers in a table that analyzed DNA sequences and failing to attribute some of the information in the paper to earlier independent studies.
As public opinion snowballed and speculation rose about the issue, Lee himself admitted that some of the calculations were wrong, but that they were merely mathematical errors and unintentional.
“Why would I try to manipulate figures that are so obviously wrong?” Lee told reporters. He emphasized that although certain figure were incorrect, the facts about the cloning were genuine.
Why the controversy?
Problems in the paper on the wolf cloning achievement became controversial because Lee was one of the key members of the team that produced Snuppy. The person who led that team was Hwang Woo-suk, who was dismissed from Seoul National University after research papers on human stem cells were proved to have been based on fabricated data.
Although he was on the same team as Hwang, Lee was not dismissed because he had mainly worked on the animal cloning projects; the dog cloning was confirmed to be genuine.
Lee’s connection with Hwang made it difficult for his wolf cloning team to find a journal to publish their paper. The delay between the birth of the wolf pups to the actual publication in an international journal was due to the need of the research team to provide required DNA evidence.
Their paper was rejected by several other journals that were not willing to publish it due to the tarnished reputation of Korean scientists from the Hwang stem cell case.
With increasing pressure from the public, Seoul National University’s Research Integrity Committee began a probe on Monday to see if the claims were true.
To determine whether or not the wolves are true clones, the school sent blood and cell samples from the two and the dog from which original cells were taken to an outside organization for analysis. Results are expected later this month.
At a press conference, Kuk Young, chief of Seoul National University’s Office of Research Affairs, took responsibility for being unable to examine the paper before it was revealed to the public. He also apologized for not being able to operate a foolproof paper review system.
Meanwhile, Hwang Woo-suk is still working on cloning in a private research facility outside Seoul. The stem cell case for which Hwang was charged with fraud and misappropriation of research funds is still in court.
Wohn Dong-hee for JoongAng Daily