SCOTTISH scientists behind the cloning of Dolly the sheep are turning their attentions to the Edinburgh Zoo pandas in an effort to save the species.

Tian Tian and Yang Guang were loaned by the Chinese Government, at around £600,000 each year, but have yet to successfully mate while in Scotland.

Earlier this year Tian Tian was artificially inseminated but lost the cub during pregnancy.

Now the prospect of cloning is being investigated by a coalition of embryologists and conservation groups as a means to safeguard the animal's future.

The prospect of any cloning programme was sparked by the discovery of "multi-potent progenitor cells" found in the panda's cheek.

Similar to stem cells, these versatile cells can be developed into specialised cell such as a muscles or nerves.

This breakthrough is seen as an important "first step" in preserving the species, according to one of the scientists involved in the current research project.

Dr Bill Ritchie, director of the Roslin Embryology firm which helped create Dolly, said: "The idea was whether we could actually get some cells from the pandas; could we grow them and actually get things started?

"The fact that you can grow cells is a step on the way. The fact you have got them to grown and do various things means they may be a source for a cloning project."

He added: "People are wary about cloning and would rather go with conventional methods, but pandas are an anomaly because of their lifestyle.

"This is a step in bringing back an endangered species or helping preserve them."

Dr Iain Valentine, director of the Giant Panda Project at Edinburgh Zoo, added: "This work is part and parcel of why the pandas are in Edinburgh, where we have lots of great scientists. It's important to have another way of conserving the species."

It is thought that conservationists will likely refuse the use of one of the 1,864 living pandas for such an experiment, meaning a similar animal will be used as a host mother.

Using this method, scientists will take a biopsy of the panda's cheek and isolate the progenitor cell.

They will then take an unfertilised egg from a black bear or grizzly bear and replace its nucleus with the progenitor cell.

After applying electric current to the cell, in order to encourage division, the embryo is then be implanted in the surrogate mother.

If successful, the cub will remain in utero until it is born as a genetic copy of the cell donor.

The process of cloning an animal from progenitor cells will face a number of obstacles, chief among which will be a notoriously low success rate.

With Dolly, the lamb was only born after 276 failed attempts by the determined Roslin researchers.

And with the Edinburgh pandas still the property of the Chinese Government, any offspring created through cloning will still be property of China.

The project involves experts not just from Roslin, but from the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, the School of Biological and Biomedical Sciences at Durham University, and the China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda.

The group submitted a report in the international PLOS One journal, which read: "Since the first mammal was cloned, the idea of using this technique to help endangered species has aroused considerable interest.

"However, several issues limit this possibility, including the relatively low success rate at every stage of the cloning process and the dearth of usable tissues from these rare animals."