July 17, 2005
Texas A&M Leads World in Cloning Animals
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Eighty-six Squared has never been in a hurry. The Black Angus bull was born 15 years after cells from his genetic donor, Bull 86, were frozen as part of a study on natural disease resistance. When Bull 86 died in 1997, scientists thought his unique genetic makeup was lost. But researchers at Texas A&M University were able to clone him from the frozen cells in 2000.
Now 5 years old, 86 Squared spends his days grazing on a rural area of the A&M campus. He was in no rush to greet recent visitors, slowly sauntering from deep inside his large metal pen.
Similarly, Texas A&M researchers know animal cloning can't be rushed. Through painstaking experimentation, A&M is the world's first academic institution to clone six species in six years: cattle, a boer goat, pigs, a deer, a horse and - most famously - a cat named cc.
"Generally the way these things go is you do an experiment and then you do another experiment, then you do another experiment," said Mark Westhusin, lead researcher with the A&M cloning team. "It's slow, painstaking work to get little bitty pieces of information that you hope will one day help and improve the technology."
A&M scientists say the cloning research could result in the creation of disease-resistant livestock, saving the agriculture industry millions of dollars and increasing food production.
Yet A&M's success has fueled the debate about the growing use of cloning, whether it is unnecessarily cruel to animals and whether the potential benefits are overblown.
The cloning team, working in a nondescript one-story brick building on the A&M campus, harvests eggs from animal ovaries. The delicate procedure is performed with micromanipulators - a high-tech microscope that holds an unfertilized egg in place while its nucleus is removed and a cultured cell is put inside.
The cell and egg are then fused through electric stimulation to create an embryo that is implanted in the uterus of a surrogate mother.
"We've just been very good at being able to manage every single aspect of that from beginning to end," Westhusin said.
But for all the technological breakthroughs, Westhusin said cloning remains an inefficient process. A&M researchers say only 1 percent to 5 percent of cloning procedures succeed.
"We do use the failures to try and see if there is information there we can use to modify the technique," he said. "You might stumble onto something one day that all of a sudden works."
One successful attempt was cc. The calico cat lives with Duane Kraemer, a member of the A&M cloning team, and his wife. Kraemer, a 71-year-old pioneer in embryonic transfer, used that technique to produce calves, a horse and a baboon. He also helped clone cc and the deer, nicknamed "Dewey" after him.
"They're special parts of my life. I revere them," Kraemer said.
A&M researchers are focused on trying to create livestock resistant to disease, particularly foot-and-mouth and mad cow disease. Bull 86 was naturally resistant to brucellosis, tuberculosis and other diseases. Eighty-six Squared has the same qualities.
Steven Stice, a researcher from the University of Georgia who has cloned cattle and pigs, said A&M has succeeded in convincing people of the importance of this work.
"They are well grounded in the basic knowledge of reproduction," Stice said. "They bring that knowledge to different species and do not force what happens in one species to another."
But animal rights activists say the potential rewards don't justify its risks.
"Animal cloning has resulted in a lot of issues with deaths and deformities that have been the norm, not the exception," said Lisa Archer, a spokeswoman for Friends of the Earth, the U.S. arm of an international environmental group.
She said an A&M study released in 2002 documented a 94 percent failure rate in efforts to clone pigs. Twenty-eight piglets were born without an anus and tail, a fatal condition.
Michelle Thew, CEO of the Animal Protection Institute of Sacramento, Calif., faults Texas A&M for trying to clone a dog and promoting the idea of pet cloning when millions of animals remain in shelters.
Westhusin said all of A&M's surviving cloned animals are healthy, but he acknowledged they don't know if they'll have problems later.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said cloning produces no more health risks to animals than other forms of reproduction. Health problems at birth are usually gone when cloned animals reach adolescence, according to the agency.
Westhusin said A&M's goal has never been to clone many animals, but to study developmental biology. However, he acknowledged the school's work with pet cloning was probably focused more on whether it could be done.