Fluffy and wide-eyed, Maya the Arctic wolf looks like an entirely normal puppy.
Yet she was cloned in a Beijing lab and born from a surrogate Beagle mother, in a scientific first that could help save endangered species across the globe.
It is a similar technique that was used to create Dolly the Sheep, in Scotland in 1996.
Scientists took skin cells from a 16-year-old female wolf living at Harbin Polarland in north-east China, and inserted them into an egg from the beagle, which had been stripped of its contents.
The egg and donor cells fused to form an embryo which was then transplanted back into the surrogate.
Maya was born in June, but researchers at Sinogene Biotechnology Co waited 100 days to check she was healthy before revealing her existence to the world.
The team released video footage of her playing happily with her beagle mother.
Mi Jidong, Sinogene’s general manager, said the birth was a “breakthrough in the protection and breeding of wild and endangered animals”.
“It is the first case of its kind in the world,” he said. “After two years of painstaking efforts, the Arctic wolf was cloned successfully.
“From the start of the project in 2020 to the healthy birth of the wolf pup in June of this year, we have overcome many difficulties. Looking back, it's worth it.”
The Arctic wolf, also known as the white wolf or polar wolf, is a subspecies of the grey wolf, native to the Arctic tundra of North America and Greenland.
Although Arctic wolves are no longer listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List as an endangered species, the technique could be used to help other animals at risk of extinction, such as Mexican gray wolves and red wolves.
The team created 85 embryos using dog eggs and skin cells and transferred them into seven beagle surrogates, as there were not enough female wolves in captivity for the trials.
Dogs and wolves share enough common DNA for the pregnancy not to be rejected.
However, the pregnancies failed in six out of seven of the experiments, with only Maya being born successfully.
The wolf is now living with her surrogate mother at a Sinogene lab in Xuzhou, eastern China, and will soon be transferred to Harbin Polarland to join other Arctic wolves. A second cloned wolf is expected to be born in the coming weeks, the team said.
Chinese researchers said it would be impossible to release her into the wild because of a lack of socialisation with other wolves at an early age.
However, the team is confident that the technique could be used to restore lost species or boost numbers in endangered animal populations.
“Cloning technology provides a good entry point for the protection of endangered wild animals, which makes a great contribution to the protection of biodiversity,” said He Zhengming, Director of the Institute of Laboratory Animal Resources, China Academy of Food and Drug Control.
Several mammals have been cloned through a similar process, although researchers usually use surrogates of the same species.
Many owners choose to ‘bring back’ dead pets through the technique, while several racing stables now clone champion horses to preserve their winning genes.
So far, only the Pyrenean ibex has been brought back from extinction using cloning, although the kid only survived for 10 minutes.
The team at Sinogene first created 137 Arctic wolf embryos by joining together skin cells from the original Maya with eggs from dogs through the process known as somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT).
A total of 85 of these embryos were then transferred to seven beagle surrogates, chosen because there were not enough female wolves in captivity for the experiments.
Fortunately, dogs and wolves share enough common DNA for the pregnancy to succeed.
Just one of those transplanted embryos fully developed during pregnancy, resulting in the new Maya.
The wolf is now living with her surrogate mother at a Sinogene lab in Xuzhou, eastern China. She will soon be transferred to Harbin Polarland to join other Arctic wolves.
Sinogene announced a new partnership with the Beijing Wildlife Park to potentially clone other species in the near future.
Gao Wei, the deputy manager of Beijing Wildlife Park, told the Global Times that the venture could provide another option for preserving rare and endangered species when artificial reproduction is not possible.