THE launch of a commercial cloning facility in Australia offering to replicate elite stud animals for as little as 10 per cent of their value is prompting plenty of discussion about the way forward for beef genetic gain.
In the wake of the expiration last year of the original patents stemming from the first ever cloned mammal, Dolly the sheep, mammalian embryologist Professor Gabor Vajta and several entrepreneurs, including a Chinese shareholder, have set up Reinclonation, based in Southern Queensland.
They say beef producers are “coming out of the woodwork” to register interest in copying high-end cows and bulls.
Animal scientists and breed societies say while the technology is proven, there are some big issues for the industry to weigh up, not the least of which is potential consumer resistance.
Prof Vajta, also a medical doctor and human pathologist, has long been at the forefront of animal cloning.
He invented a style he calls “handmade cloning” which has now been used to produce more than a thousand animals around the world for research, from a factory base in China.
Four years ago he made a clone of a prize Australian Brangus cow for Neville and Megan Hansen, Oaklands Brangus Stud, Kalapa, Queensland but went back to research after being issued with a cease and desist from the United States owners of the original cloning patents.
Managing director at Reinclonation Steve Davey said with the patent now expired, cloning was about to turn the Australian beef industry on its head.
Cloning was a simple process, he said.
“We take a skin sample from the ear of the animal, split the skin cells apart in a laboratory and then grow them - that is called cell culturing,” he said.
“That can be stored for 100 years.
“To make an embryo, we take one cell out of the culture and attach it to an egg and run a shock of current to fuse the two together. On day seven, the embryo is transferred to a recipient cow.
“That technique is now over 20 years old and no longer under patent but we are using a slightly more advanced technique called handmade cloning (HMC).”
Pro Vajta said HMC was simpler, quicker, easier to perform, less expensive and more efficient than the traditional way.
It also means a big difference for the farmer - less risk and more benefit, he said.
It results in higher pregnancy and calving rates, a low number of losses before or after births and a low number of developmental abnormalities after calving.
Depending on the value of animal - Mr Davey is expecting $30,000-plus animals would be the target market - the whole process could cost as little as $8000 for the first clone, then $6000 for any extras.
Mr Davey, a patent attorney by trade who says he saw big potential with cloning, said the progeny of cloned beef animals had been in the food chain for two decades.
“Almost all elite cows these days are made from in vitro fertilisation and embryo transfer. This just takes that technology one step further so you can control exactly what type of progeny you are getting,” he said.
Reinclonation already has five customers on the books and was also receiving strong interest from rodeo bull owners, he said.
First cloned Brangus progeny up for sale
PROVIDED the numbers up, Queensland Brangus breeders Neville and Megan Hansen say they will factor cloning into their future stud management.
The couple, who run 100 registered breeders at Oaklands Brangus Stud, Kalapa, four years ago created a clone of Telpara Hills Miss Csonka, a cow they purchased for a record high Brangus price at the time of $20,000.
The first progeny of a cloned Brangus in Australia will be offered for sale when Oaklands catalogues a daughter of that cow, which they have called Eve, at The National Brangus Sale in Gracemere on October 9.
Eve has had two natural calves and 15 via embryo transfer and Mr Hansen says she is no different to the original.
“She’s had no signs of premature aging, no signs of ill health and no abnormalities,” he said.
“It’s good to have the original cow still, so that you can compare the two of them and see how similar she really is.”
Eve not only looks the same as the original cow, but she acts the same - amazingly quiet, which was a key reason they chose her to be cloned, he said.
The fact temperament was transferrable to cloned animals was advantageous to the beef industry, Mr Hansen said.
“Basically, cloning is good insurance on valuable genetics,” he said.
As to consumer perceptions, he agreed there might be challenges.
“But realistically, there is no way to tell progeny from a clone animal,” he said.