The British embryologist Ian Wilmut, one of the parents of the famous sheep Dolly, has died at the age of 79, as confirmed this Monday by the University of Edinburgh. Dolly, born on July 5, 1996, was the first mammal cloned from an adult cell and sparked international fear of cloning human beings. Wilmut led the investigation, but he himself acknowledged that most of the work was done by his colleague Keith Campbell, who died in 2012 at the age of 58 after accidentally hanging himself while drunk, according to The Telegraph newspaper. German biologist Angelika Schnieke was another of the key people in the creation of Dolly.
The sheep was not the first cloned animal. British biologist John Gurdon’s team managed to clone an African clawed frog in 1962, a milestone for which he won the Nobel Prize in Medicine half a century later. Gurdon removed the nucleus from a fertilized egg from a frog and replaced it with the nucleus of a cell from the intestine of a tadpole. That modified egg developed to generate a frog, demonstrating that a mature cell still contained the genetic information necessary to give rise to the rest of the organism’s cells, as highlighted by the Nobel committee.
Ian Wilmut’s team continued the path started by Gurdon, in a series of experiments carried out at the Roslin Institute, in the Veterinary Faculty of the University of Edinburgh. The researchers used an egg from a Scottish blackface sheep and an adult cell taken from the udder of another Finn Dorset sheep. Since the cloned DNA came from a mammary gland, Wilmut’s group made the decision, with a macho reek, to name her Dolly, after the American singer Dolly Parton.
The embryologist Ian Wilmut, in a 2003 image. Gorka Lejarcegi
Dolly lived for almost seven years in a flock at Roslin Institute and had half a dozen lambs. In 2001, veterinarians noticed that she was walking with difficulty due to arthritis, a finding that fueled fears that cloned animals would age prematurely. On February 14, 2003, Dolly was euthanized after lung cancer was detected. Her stuffed body is on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
Dolly’s birth was announced to the world in 1997 and unleashed the imagination of humanity. Wilmut himself expressed his concern from the first moment. “We are aware of the possibility of misusing this discovery,” he warned. “Cloning people would be entering the realm of science fiction. “All of us who participated in this research consider it unethical,” he declared. A 2001 American documentary condensed the fears in its title: Playing God. “We believe it is important for society to decide how it wants to use this technique and make sure it prohibits what it wants to prohibit. “It would be desperately sad if people started using this technique on people,” Wilmut warned.
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