By Brad Haire
After almost two years of research, University of Georgia scientists have successfully cloned eight healthy calves.
Unveiled at a June 26 press conference in Athens, the calves will help pave the way for improved cloning technology, say experts with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
The improved technology, scientists say, will allow the livestock industry to efficiently meet consumers' growing demand for consistent, quality meat products.
"To produce offspring and develop methods to improve the efficiency of the cloning process has been our goal," said Steve Stice, lead scientist for UGA cloning research.
About 200 cloned embryos are produced in Stice's lab each day. Only 10 to 20 percent of those embryos make it through the first seven days to be then transferred into recipient cows, he said.
But with the development of the eight full-term, healthy calves, "we've shown significant improvement in the process," Stice said. "We're all very pleased."
Stice is a professor and Georgia Research Alliance eminent scholar with the UGA animal and dairy science department.
Over-the-Hill Cow Clone
The calves are clones of a cow that had grown too old to reproduce but had desirable traits worth preserving, he said. The cloning process doesn't change the genetic makeup. It repeats it, just like an identical twin in nature.
"Improvement in the efficiency of cloning will allow us to reproduce those individuals, bulls or cows, that have lost the ability to reproduce because of age or accident," said Larry Benyshek, CAES animal and dairy science department head.
"If we can spread improved genetics at a faster rate," Benyshek said, "this will be a great benefit for producers. That has ramifications for consumers and the public in general."
Cloning won't replace sexual reproduction, the scientists say.
Improvements Still Needed
Established breeding programs lead to the genetic traits farmers want, such as quality consistent meat and better breeding and nurturing characteristics, Stice said. Cloning allows a way to more easily duplicate those traits.
But there are still improvements to be made. "The next step is to take it further and make additional jumps in pregnancy rates," Stice said.
The UGA calves were cloned using technology developed in collaboration between the UGA animal and dairy science department and Athens-based ProLinia, Inc. The technology will be patented by UGA and licensed by ProLinia.
ProLinia is not only developing its own cloning technology but is also combining and cooperating with other companies to further develop of the cloning process, said ProLinia president Mike Wanner.
One of the eight calves was cloned using a combination of the technology developed in Athens with technology developed by Geron, the company that produced Dolly the sheep, Wanner said.
"We were very pleased with the results with a (cloning) process that has not been used before," Wanner said.
Consumers should be able to find out easily the animal's breed and genetics and what it was fed, Wanner said.
"There is a need for consumers to know when they're at the meat counter exactly what kind of meat they're buying," he said.
Consumer Is King
"The cattle industry is becoming more and more a consumer-driven industry," Benyshek said. "Everybody realizes that in today's market, the consumer is the king. ... Genetics has an important part to play in improving those qualities (the consumer wants). We know we can do that."
Cloning, like the research done in Athens, could help the livestock industry meet the consumer demand for niche markets for specific products, Benyshek said.
"It gives us another tool to enhance and provide a way to further spread desirable genetics and meet the demand," he said.
"I'm excited about it," Benyshek said. "It (the cloned calves) was a fantastic breakthrough. It's right in line with many breakthroughs in animal biotechnology. It will be very good for animal production for Georgia, the country and the world."
"The demand for animal products is directly proportional to the economic well-being for humans," Benyshek said. "We'll have to become more efficient so there is more product to meet demand without harming the environment and to allow us to produce more on a smaller quantity of land. This research is certainly a step in that direction."
(Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)