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Wednesday, 27 November, 2002, 19:25 GMT
Panda cloning 'faces last hurdle'
Baby panda hours after birth at Chengdu Panda Breeding Research Base, China
Alarmingly few giant pandas are being born
China has cleared two major hurdles in its quest to clone the highly endangered giant panda and just one problem remains to be surmounted, the scientist leading the project says.

Chen Dayuan said researchers had worked out how to create a panda embryo using an egg cell from another species and implant the embryo in the uterus of a surrogate mother, also of a different species.

Giant pandas
About 1,000 left in wild
About 140 live in zoos and breeding centres
Diet in wild consists almost entirely of bamboo
Adults are generally solitary
But the final hurdle is to make development of the embryo possible in the womb of another species, the official Xinhua news agency quoted Mr Chen as saying.

Mr Chen heads the panda cloning programme of the Chinese Academy of Science's Institute of Zoology. He was speaking in the south-eastern city of Fuzhou.

Reporting his speech, Xinhua said: "Cloning of the giant panda... may soon be achieved in China".

Mr Chen was quoted as saying Chinese scientists had managed to implant a panda embryo into the uterus of a cat last year, but the cat died two months later. They are now looking for a surrogate mother from a species closer to pandas, such as a bear.

Low fertility

Experts say trans-species cloning technology has to be used because of the low fertility of giant pandas, which have a very slow rate of reproduction.

giant panda
Giant pandas live in a few bamboo forests in central China
Most efforts to breed the animals in captivity have failed. More than 60% of male pandas in zoos or sanctuaries exhibit no sexual desire at all.

The Chinese researchers used the egg cell of a rabbit to create a panda embryo in 1998.

Mr Chen did not indicate how soon the researchers might be able to resolve the final hurdle and clone a giant panda.

Experts say only about 1,000 giant pandas are left in the wild and the number of female giant pandas that can produce mature eggs is less than 100.

Successful cloning of the giant panda would help save it from extinction, according to some scientists.

Cloning doubts

The Chinese Academy of Sciences and two giant panda research centres have created a bank of panda cells for trans-species cloning.

But Wang Dajun, a panda researcher at Beijing University, played down the prospects for panda cloning, cautioning that so far cloning of mammals has failed to produce healthy adults.

"If we depend on cloning, the pandas will be gone before the technology becomes viable," the Associated Press quoted Mr Wang as saying.

Echoing his comments, other Chinese scientists have argued that protecting the mountain forests in south-west China would be a better way to save the wild pandas.

See also:

27 Nov 02 | Science/Nature
25 Nov 02 | Technology
13 Apr 00 | Science/Nature
30 Mar 00 | Asia-Pacific
24 Dec 99 | Science/Nature
23 Mar 00 | Health
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