George D. Lepp/Corbis
Przewalski's horses stand in the dirt at their home at the San Diego Zoo.
George D. Lepp/Corbis
A Somali wild ass, Equus africanus somaliensis, in Israel's Hai Bar Reserve.
Scientists in Cremona, Italy have created the world's first cloned horse. A birth announcement appears in current issue of the science journal, Nature, NPR's Joe Palca reports. The horse, a European breed called Halflinger, is now the second equine species to be cloned. Earlier this year, scientists in Idaho cloned a mule.
Scientists at Italy's Laboratory of Reproductive Technology created the horse using a standard cloning procedure where DNA is removed from an egg, and the DNA from the animal to be cloned is inserted. The egg is then coaxed to start growing and then inserted into a surrogate mother.
Promotea, born May 28, is named after Prometheus, the character in Greek mythology who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. The surrogate mother was also the source of the DNA for the clone, making Promotea a clone of her birth mother.
Some conservationists hope cloning technology will someday be able to help save critically endangered relatives of the horse, such as the Somali Wild Ass and Koulan.
The list of extremely rare horse-like creatures that could get a population boost through cloning is a long one, says Betsy Dresser of the Audubon Research Institute.
Dresser runs a captive breeding research program. Every time a commercially-important mammal like a horse, cow, goat or sheep is cloned, she starts looking for ways to save related but far less common species, such as Przewalski's horse. This wild horse species used to roam the vast grasslands of central Asia, but now is only found in zoos.
Thousands of years ago, many different horse species were common in parts of Europe and Asia, but now there are only a few, and some of the most genetically important ones are no longer able to breed.
"There's a lot of animals that are not contributing to the genetic pool," Dresser says. "They are too old, too young... for whatever reasons they are not reproducing. Cloning can be a tool where we can bring that genetic material back into the population."
But as NPR's John Nielsen reports, there is much debate over whether, in the chronically underfunded world of conservation research, money should be spent on saving habitat, or cloning.