As everybody should know, the extremely low diversity of the contemporary gene pool of the Wisent after the severe bottleneck event during the 1920s and 30s is the most immediate danger for the species’ long-term existence. In this post I outlined how the high degree of inbreeding affects the health and fertility of the global population. I proposed careful, controlled introgression of the American bison as a probable way to add more genetic diversity and resistance to diseases without affecting looks, behaviour and ecology of the Wisent too much, documented in an own breeding book.
When writing my post on extinct species that might one day be revived throughcloning, I came up with another idea helping the Wisent to get out of its genetic misère.
A well-preserved bone from the early Holocene made it possible to fully sequence the genome of a 9,000 years old aurochs bull. If this is possible, it must be feasible to do the same with the genome of an ancient Wisent. There must be plenty of well-preserved Wisent bones or even soft tissues from early Holocene to the 19th century onwards. Turf remains for example. Even more promising might be remains from historic times, such as hunting trophies in form of skulls and skins.
Once a full genome is recovered, either a complete set of chromosomes could be reconstructed (for which, as far as I know, the technique has not been developed yet), or the genome of a living Wisent could be used as a template and edited according to the ancient nucleotide sequence by genome editing. The latter method should be easier and more feasible. I think that there is a good chance to recover the whole genome of not only one but several ancient Wisents. Acquiring a surrogate would be no problem of course. Any specimen that lived prior to the bottleneck event would be a precious gain of diversity, and five individuals or so might even multiply it. You might be wondering how a small group of Wisent should distribute their genetic material on the whole global population. But one and the same individual can be cloned several times. Cloning as many as possible individuals, both bulls and cows, and adding them to herds in various regions. But adding only bulls, or replacing as much inbreed bulls with cloned bulls as possible would not be ideal in my opinion. The Y types of the cloned individuals have to be added to the population, but should not replace the old ones.
One of the advantages of cloning pre-bottleneck Wisents over the cloning of extinct species is that people won’t raise those annoying “ethical” non-issues and they will see the good in it more immediately than in cloning aurochs, Quagga and so on.
Even better: if it succeeds, those cloned wisents could serve as flagships for the good in cloning ancient animals that might help to get public acceptance.
Maybe the idea of cloning “ancient” wisent as a genetic long-term solution for the conservation of the wisent sounds unconventional. And yes, I am fully aware of the fact that it would face the same general problems of cloning just as any other project does (although, as far as my knowledge does, the offspring of cloned ancient wisents and modern ones would have the developmental problems clones have to a much lesser extent). But if we are honest, this concept is the only way to considerably increase the genetic diversity of the Wisent and therefore to solve its major threat as a species, without affecting its genetic integrity by crossing-in another species.
If you agree with me, feel free to spread this idea. I really hope that people who have the right connections are going to see this and maybe such a project might be realized in near future.