Jurassic Park, Hastings?
Jurassic Park, Hastings?
What was the most exciting thing your children did at school this year? About fifty students at Hastings Boys High School have been thinking about cloning an extinct bird. The Huia is the emblem of this school and it has been extinct for seventy years or more -a victim of the colonization of New Zealand and the attack by axe, saw, and fire on native forests. Life may imitate art in an event seemingly plucked from the pages of "Jurassic Park" when a conference convenes at the school later this week to share the project with both the Maori community that will decide if the cloning should go ahead and with the scientists that would love to make it happen. The July 9-10 conference is sponsored by cyberuni (www.cyberuni.ac.nz ) a California corporation that will donate $100,000 of the proceeds of its Direct Public Offering to the cloning attempt if it goes ahead.
Some of the boys have been considering whether it is possible to clone an extinct species. Jurassic Park introduced the world to one approach - match the DNA of the extinct species to that of a living relative and plug in any gaps with DNA from the living relative. The Huia, unlike dinosaurs, roamed its small corner of the world until recently and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of stuffed specimens can be found in private collections and museums. One pair, the male with his chisel like beak and the female with her uniquely different gracefully curved appendage, have had pride of place in the foyer of Hastings Boys High School since the 1920s. It might be possible to put together a complete sequence of Huia DNA using organic material from the bones and tendons of these and other stuffed birds. Professor Diana Wells of the biochemistry department of Otago University has explored cloning another extinct New Zealand bird, the Moa, using Ostrich DNA as a template. She will be speaking at the conference.
Matters may be significantly easier than this. 'Dolly' showed that mammals at least can be cloned if a whole cell, or nucleus, is available. New Zealand has had experience in cloning cattle using this technique. Dr David Wells of the Ruakura AgResearch Institute leads a team that has probably saved the Enderby cattle, the only cattle breed that can survive on a diet of seaweed, from extinction. Culling by the Department of Conservation reduced the breed to a single surviving, and ageing, cow. Thank to Dr Wells and his team, and a mixture of in-vitro fertilisation (using semen taken from dead bulls and frozen) and cloning, the Enderby herd is now approaching double figures. If a whole Huia cell can be extracted from a tendon or bone of one of the stuffed birds, a proven technology could indeed clone the Huia if an appropriate surrogate bird can be found. However, the chances of extracting a viable cell or cell nucleus are remote.
Of course, there is more to cloning than science. The boys have also debated the moral issues involved. Although the debate has at times been heated, the consensus has been in favour. The dispute is over whether the New Zealand government has a moral obligation to pay for the cloning attempt. Although the politics may not interest him, Melbourne philosopher and Roman Catholic priest, Rev. Dr. Norman Ford, director of the Caroline Chisholm Centre for Health Care Ethics, will speak to the conference on the moral issues. The boys have also been assisted in their ethical considerations by Dr Vanya Kovach of the University of Auckland's philosophy department, who spent a day at the school holding workshops.
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