His cloned Welsh mountain sheep was a sensation, but also a taboo break. Ian Wilmut was considered one of the "spiritual fathers" of Dolly the sheep - the first exact copy of an adult mammal. It did not have a biological father. By developing the method, Wilmut and his team laid the foundation for an entire cloning zoo - with horses, cattle, pigs, dogs or cats. But the success also brought the Brit a lot of trouble. Most recently, he devoted himself to the incurable Parkinson's disease, which he himself suffered from. Wilmut has now died at the age of 79, as the Scottish University of Edinburgh announced on Monday.
"He was a titan of the scientific world," said the college's vice-chancellor, Peter Mathieson. Wilmut's experiments "changed scientific thinking at the time."
When the existence of Dolly, born on July 5, 1996 and named after country singer Dolly Parton, became known in February 1997, there was much criticism of Wilmut and his team, as well as a heated debate about the ethics of cloning. Fears quickly grew that the technology could also be used to clone humans - a prospect that Wilmut described as "hideous." He told the New York Times at the time that his work had “nothing to do with making copies of people.” Rather, the breakthrough will allow scientists to study genetic diseases for which there is no known cure.
How did Dolly the clone sheep come about?
Wilmut later had to admit that his then colleague Keith Campbell had done most of the experiments. But he himself was the laboratory manager. Wilmut received many awards, such as the renowned Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize.
Dolly was created with the help of somatic cell nuclear transfer. To create the clone, researchers from the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh removed the nucleus containing the genetic information from an egg cell from a female sheep. In its place, they placed the nucleus of a mature cell that they had taken from the udder of another female sheep. The modified egg cell was then stimulated to divide in a nutrient solution and implanted into a surrogate mother.
The method is now used on numerous animals. In Germany, for example, pigs suffering from diabetes or cystic fibrosis are cloned for medical research. In other countries, the method is used primarily to produce horses and cattle for breeding. However, animal cloning remains controversial to this day, also because the success rate of the method is still low.
Wilmut actually wanted to become a farmer
Wilmut, who actually wanted to become a farmer, came to biology through agricultural science. In 1971 he received his doctorate from Cambridge on the “frozen preservation of boar semen”. The scientist finally got around to cloning in the late 1980s.
When Wilmut finally gave up his research, he was still in demand as an expert for a long time - even in art. He advised the Hildesheim-born artist Diemut Strebe, who made a reproduction of the ear of the painter Vincent van Gogh, which he had cut off himself. A 3D bioprinter and the DNA of a descendant of the Dutch artist were used.
Most recently, the professor emeritus supported a Parkinson's research initiative. “Shaking paralysis” affects men slightly more often than women; the risk of the disease increases with age. The cause of Parkinson's is the death of nerve cells in the brain. In addition to tremors, the consequences include movement disorders, for example when walking.
And what happened to Dolly?
However, on Dolly's 20th birthday in 2016, Wilmut admitted that the widespread use of stem cell therapies to treat neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's was probably still "decades away."
And what happened to Dolly? She had six lambs; their father was a he-goat named David. But she was not granted a life in the countryside. Perhaps the most famous sheep in the world lived in a closely guarded concrete block and chewed pills containing food concentrate to protect herself from clone opponents and hailstones. She suffered from joint problems far too young, and later developed lung disease. Eventually, the researchers euthanized Dolly when she was six years old. Normally sheep live almost twice as old.
Dolly was preserved for posterity. She stands stuffed in a display case in the National Museum in Edinburgh - and appears to be smiling. For Wilmut, Dolly was “the friendliest sheep” anyway; It was never afraid of people.