CLONING techniques could allow the creation of a “Noah’s Ark” of cells to save animals from extinction, according to the scientist who produced Dolly the Sheep.

The idea would be to create an animal biobank in much the same way that seeds of rare plant species are currently preserved for posterity.

Professor Sir Ian Wilmut led the team that produced Dolly, the first mammal cloned from an adult cell, at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute on July 5, 1996.

Part of the cloning process involved reprogramming adult cells to turn back their developmental clock.

Stem-cell scientists later adopted the same technique to create induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells from ordinary adult cells, such as those in the skin. Like embryonic stem cells, iPS cells have the potential to become any kind of tissue in the body.

Speaking on the eve of the anniversary of Dolly's birth, Wilmut said researchers had already made progress towards creating gametes – eggs and sperm – from iPS cells.

“We are looking some distance into the future, but people are beginning to develop abilities to produce gametes from iPS cells,” said Wilmut.

“I would presume that one day, with the species which are really studied, we will be able to produce gametes, and therefore embryos.”

This would revolutionise the business of conserving endangered species, he said.

Available cells of any kind could theoretically be stored in the biobank “Ark” if the technology existed to transform them into reproductive cells. The artificially created gametes could in turn be used to produce embryos from which species could be resurrected.

Success would depend on finding suitable surrogate mothers, said Wilmut. This would have to be a closely related species.

Birds present a special problem for conservationists because their eggs cannot be preserved by freezing, unlike mammalian eggs.

A team led by Dr Mike McGrew at the Roslin Institute has developed a new technique for growing “primordial germ cells” – partially mature precursors of sperm and eggs – that can be frozen instead.

In a study published last year and focusing on chickens, the researchers talked about their hopes of saving rare bird breeds at risk of extinction.

Experts are keen to preserve rare chicken breeds because they may carry useful genetic information that makes them resistant to disease.