Ian Wilmut, the renowned British embryologist who led the team that cloned Dolly the Sheep, has passed away at the age of 79. The University of Edinburgh confirmed his death, attributing it to Parkinson’s disease, which Wilmut had been battling since 2018.

Wilmut, along with his colleague Keith Campbell and their research team, achieved a groundbreaking scientific feat in 1996 by successfully cloning Dolly the Sheep from an adult cell. Dolly’s birth marked a watershed moment in the 20th century, as it was the first instance in which scientists demonstrated the ability to reprogramme a mature adult cell to behave like a cell from a newly fertilised embryo, thereby creating an animal genetically identical to the cell’s donor.

The process involved taking a cell from the mammary gland of a deceased adult sheep, subjecting it to electrical stimulation and chemical treatment to revert it to an embryo-like state, and then implanting it into an empty sheep’s egg, which was subsequently placed in a surrogate sheep.

While Dolly’s birth was a remarkable scientific achievement, it also ignited intense ethical debates surrounding cloning research. In response to the ethical concerns raised, then-US President Bill Clinton imposed a ban on human cloning experiments approximately a year after Dolly’s birth, although this did not extend to all cloning research. Tragically, Dolly’s life was relatively short-lived, as she developed an incurable lung tumour approximately six years after her birth, leading to her euthanisation by scientists.

Following the Dolly experiment, Ian Wilmut shifted his research focus to the application of cloning technology in producing stem cells for regenerative medicine. His work played a crucial role in advancing research aimed at treating genetic and degenerative diseases by enabling the human body to repair damaged tissue.

Although the advent of cloning technology initially raised ethical concerns, many of the dire fears surrounding its applications have not materialised. Wilmut’s contributions to science have earned him accolades within the scientific community, and his research has laid the foundation for innovative medical technologies with the potential to save lives.