US company in Iowa churns out 100 cloned cows a year

June 29, 2014 by Juliette Michel
Four white heifers, "genetic twin sisters" produced using cloning technology, from a very elite Shorthorn cow in the US, are pictured at the headquarter of Trans Ova Genetics in Sioux Center, Iowa, on June 16, 2014

In the meadow, four white-haired Shorthorn heifers peel off from the others, raising their heads at the same time in the same direction. Unsettling, when you know they are clones.

From their ears dangle yellow tags marked with the same number: 434P. Only the numbers that follow are different: 2, 3, 4 and 6.

The tag also bears the name of the company that bred them and is holding them temporarily in a field at its headquarters in Sioux Center, Iowa: Trans Ova Genetics, the only large US company selling cloned cows.

A few miles away, four Trans Ova scientists in white lab jackets bend over high-tech microscopes in the company's laboratories. They are meticulously working with the minute elements of life to create, in Petri dishes, genetically identical copies of existing animals.

Each year, the company gives birth, using the cloning technique, to about 100 calves. It also clones pigs and horses.

The specialist in reproductive technologies for livestock began to become interested in the 1990s in cloning, a niche market.

The birth of Dolly the sheep in 1996—the first clone of an adult mammal—had seemed at the time like something straight out of science fiction.

And the advanced technology raised ethical concerns because it deviates from normal reproduction that marries genetic material from two parents.

Still, the controversial technique has spread and is used in a number of countries, including the United States.

In 2008, the agency charged with US , the Food and Drug Administration, approved consumption of meat and milk from cloned cows, pigs and goats.

A scientist works at Trans Ova Genetics in Sioux Center, Iowa, June 16, 2014

But on the other side of the Atlantic, just last December, the European Commission, the European Union's executive, proposed a ban on the cloning of animals used for food and their import. That has yet to be decided.

The commission, however, did not seek a ban on the sale of products from the descendants of cloned animals or insist on the traceability of their origin, actions that were pushed by the European Parliament.

The idea of tracking such animals elicits a shrug from Blake Russell, who heads Trans Ova's division ViaGen.

"There are cattle in the thousands globally now", and their offspring and descendants are "going to multiply every year," Russell said.

"It would be next to impossible to go backwards."

Cloning can boost the production of animal protein to feed the world's growing population, said Mark Allan, Trans Ova's director of marketing and genomics.

The technique allows the preservation of desirable characteristics in the cloned animal, such as leaner meat, higher milk production and disease resistance, he noted.

Bonanza for breeders

Cloning is a bonanza for owners of elite cows or bulls, who sell the animals' sperm or eggs at a premium price but face the extinction of that income flow when the animal dies. By paying $20,000 to Trans Ova for a cloned animal, the owner can keep on reaping profits into the future.

Opponents of the practice say dangers loom.

The entrance to the labs of the Genetic Advancement Center of Trans Ova Genetics is seen in Sioux Center, Iowa, on June 16, 2014

The US authorities have made a major mistake by not regulating it, and allowing consumption of cloned meat before long-term studies of its impact on human health, said Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst at the non-profit Center for Food Safety.

Mortality rates are higher than for non-cloned animals at all stages of development, and surrogate cows carrying the cloned egg have more problems during pregnancy and delivery, said Hanson.

He said that of the millions of cows produced every year, the number that are cloned is "overall pretty insignificant."

"But the bottom line is you do not want large numbers of these animals for a number of reasons, number one being that cloned are generally unhealthy."

"Any time you take the natural process and you bring change, there's always a learning curve," said Trans Ova's Russell.

Explore further: EU wants cloned meat off the table (Update)

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5 / 5 (2) Jun 29, 2014
$20000 for a calf? I bet they don't butcher too many of these elite cattle.

Marketing director Allan raises the prospect of providing more protein in the world's diet. Yet the part of the world that most needs more protein is the part least likely to be able to afford these expensive animals. Beef is an extraordinarily inefficient way to make protein anyways. He also mentions disease resistance, which might be a boon up to when that one disease happens for which there is no resistance. Then your entire herd is going to tank.
not rated yet Jun 29, 2014
What are the benefits of having cloned animals, vs having them breed naturally? And people worry about GM.
1 / 5 (1) Jun 29, 2014
What are the benefits of having cloned animals, vs having them breed naturally? And people worry about GM.

Not much.
If you wanted to insert specific, advantageous genes from other stock, there are cheaper ways to do it, such as through regular GM, or good old-fashioned cross-breeding.

The technique allows the preservation of desirable characteristics in the cloned animal, such as leaner meat, higher milk production and disease resistance, he noted.

Until farmers lose track of the descendants and start accidentally breeding them too close to home, and you end up with Curly Calf syndrome, like what happened in the Black Angus "professional" (in)breeding cattle market, just a few years ago.

$20000 for a calf? I bet they don't butcher too many of these elite cattle.

Even natural breeder bulls and cows can sell for absurd amounts, if they have certain lineages, or if the bull has large enough testicles.

As mentioned above, professional breeders create disease.
1 / 5 (1) Jun 29, 2014
You are correct though.

Cloning runs a high risk of making the herd highly vulnerable to novel strains of bacteria or viruses, since if the Parent didn't have genes to fight those infections, the offspring won't, and the entire herd will be vulnerable.

Naturally bred animals have highly diverse gene pools, and therefore the herd is less likely to be annihilated by a single disease event.

See Irish Potato Famine, where just one strain of potato was relied upon for primary food, and just one strain of blight wiped out the crops.

The CDC suggests that 1/3rd vaccination of humans mostly prevents the flu.

Assuming that number is about right for animals, then you need at least 3 unrelated strains of clones per herd, in order to reach minimalist disease resistance, and I'd hope to have 4 or 5 unrelated strains of clones, which you may as well be naturally breeding by then due to costs and complexity.
not rated yet Jun 29, 2014
There are 5 or 6 notable major breeds of cattle used in the U.S. beef and dairy industry, not counting half-breeds:

Making clones is inefficient and counter-productive, as it risks decreasing genetic diversity, and thereby increasing the risk of epidemic, which runs contrary to what it claims to be doing.
not rated yet Jun 29, 2014
What are the benefits of having cloned animals, vs having them breed naturally? And people worry about GM.

Okay, seriously.

They might clone an animal which is more resistant to a particular strain of a disease, but they can't do that for all diseases because that would cost too much.

More seriously:
The are probably cloning animals based on growth efficiency or methane emissions of the animals, or the sexual fertility of the parent. That's two of the most important characteristics farmers actually care about: How fast is the turn-over in breeding, and how fast does the animal grow per unit feeding.

While that's all "good," selecting a clone parent for one group of "good" genes can create genetic bottlenecks in other genes you DON'T want to be bottle necking.

They already have this problem with professional breeding right now, and these guys want to use clones.

I'd literally rather them add the "big dick" gene or the "grow fast" gene via normal GM, at least no bottlenecks

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