This story is another in a weekly series called "Planting the Seed: Science for the New Millennium." These stories feature ideas and advances in agricultural and environmental sciences with implications for the future.
Scientists cloning cattle in University of Georgia laboratories see their work going straight to the farm and the grocery store. High-quality bulls they clone for cattle farms will make consistently high-quality beef more available for consumers.
"The more we do this (clone cattle), the better we get at it," said Steven Stice, an associate professor and Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
But it's a slow process, scientifically speaking.
Stice and a team of scientists and technicians, are perfecting the techniques to clone cattle in their Athens laboratory. Once that process is finalized, they'll begin transferring the cloned embryos to recipient cows. These cows will be surrogate mothers to the calves as they mature.
J. Rodekohr, UGA CAES
|STICE AT WORK Cloning cattle used to be the stuff of science fiction, but now it's science fact. Steve Stice is working to perfect the cloning process at his UGA laboratory. He expects perfect copies of superior cattle to be on the farm in five to ten years.|
To begin the cloning process, scientists collect cells from the skin and ovaries of genetically superior cattle. These cattle show characteristics that meet consumer demands for beef, like good intramuscular marbling, or a long torso which produces more steaks.
Once the cells are collected, Stice's team can either 'bank' them for later use or clone them. "We've found we get the best results with cells from ovaries," Stice said.
The team of scientists is currently working with cells from 10 beef cattle. "These cattle have such good genetic characteristics, their owners are willing to pay for the inefficiencies of the process to get 'copies' of them into their breeding program."
With these 'copies', Stice said more producers can add the superior characteristics to their herds, either through traditional breeding or artificial insemination. In the South, most commercial cattle farmers don't use artificial insemination, because the extra management required by heat and humidity make it more expensive than it's worth.
But in other areas where artificial insemination is commonly used or for purebred farmers, this program shows glowing promise.
"All these things take time, though," he said. "It won't happen overnight."
Stice expects the first of his perfect copies to be in commercial breeding programs in five to 10 years.
For the purebred cattle farmer who can afford it, cloning is already a reality. But for the program to be a success, as Stice defines it, these cloned breeding bulls will have to cost $4,000 to $5,000. That's about twice the cost of most bulls purchased for commercial operations.
"But with this kind of genetic superiority, that extra cost will be worth it," Stice said.
Stice's work doesn't change the genetic makeup of the animals, it just repeats it -- exactly.
Which brings up an oft-asked question about maintaining genetic diversity in cattle. "Part of the plan we have is to preserve genetic diversity," he said. "That's one of the reasons we 'bank' cells -- that and to keep a variety of characteristics available to quickly meet changing consumer demand."
Add to that the factor of breeding cloned bulls to many cows with varied backgrounds and Stice feels their plan will maintain a large bovine genetic pool.
The research is expected to add value to cattle for operators across the nation, by helping them provide more consistent beef. And that's what consumers want at the grocery store.