The pros and cons of cloning beef animals

The pros and cons of cloning beef animals


Beef Cattle
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Experts weigh in on potential for cloning in beef.

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CLONING is proven technology now - it does what it claims.

So says one of Australia’s top animal scientists, Dr Robert Banks, who heads up the Animal Genetics and Breeding Unit at the University of New England in Armidale.

The biggest risk it poses, he says, is copying the wrong animal.

That would be animals whose genetic merit is not as good as it appears.

Estimated breeding values would be critical as the cloning game moved forward, he said.

Dr Bank’s comments come in the wake of the launch of a commercial cloning business in Queensland offering to replicate elite beef stud animals for as little as 10 per cent of their value.

The other big risk was that if you based a breeding program around one or a small number of clones, you raised the risk of inbreeding significantly, he said.

“Basically, you are making genetic copies, which in turn enables you to generate more progeny of the original animal you clone but this raises the question, why not just collect semen?” he said.

Dr Banks said there had been good work done on the theoretical aspects of using cloning in breeding and production systems and the benefits depended very much on price.

Simply cloning elite animals was not actually very useful for genetic improvement purposes, he said.

“You already have that set of genes and the aim should be to generate new sets that are better,” he said.

“In that sense, cloning is more useful to make copies that will generate commercial product.

“For instance, it has been used in goats that secrete insulin in their milk.”

Whether or not cloning would be adopted quickly depended on the price, Dr Banks said.

“But I suspect initially, adoption would be modest,” he said.

“It’s important to realise that a clone is a copy of the genetic material – so the clone won’t be identical in phenotype to the animal it is a clone of.”

What the breed societies say

THE value of multiplying elite animals from a particular generation is limited, according to breed societies.

Manager of research and technical implementation at Herefords Australia Dr Alex Ball said cloning did not directly contribute to genetic gain.

“As the clone is a mirror copy of an animal’s genes, it allows for more efficient and larger scale transfer of genetic material - it’s a multiplier of the genes rather than a new set of genes,” he said.

“There is a theory that if you can clone, then you might take some clones through a different production system and get more valuable data.”

Dr Ball made some other points about cloning:

  • It doesn’t really help with reducing generation intervals or selection intensity.
  • It is not in much use yet in other industries.
  • Although it isn’t a genetically modified organism, there are potential perception issues.
  • Other technologies are emerging, such as the genotyping of embryos, that could have a real impact on genetic gain and generation interval.

“I expect this last point will have a great impact on beef breeding in Australia,” he said.

“I do believe that as technologies improve there will be more businesses focusing of a raft of new innovations such as cloning, gene editing, embryo genotyping and rapid genotyping.

“All require very careful consideration and appropriate analysis of benefit cost returns, however as the bull market gets more competitive I expect that leading breeders will look at these technologies as points of differentiation.

“By 2019 we will see these technologies used in the leading herds.”

Angus Australia expects cloning will have limited application in the Angus seedstock sector.

Chief executive officer Peter Parnell said most Angus seedstock breeders had effective genetic improvement programs in place such that any high performing animal in a particular generation would generally be replaced by a superior son or daughter.

Hence, the limited value in multiplying from the one generation.

“The possible exception to this would be if a particular outlier sire or dam was identified whose multi-trait performance was so far above its contemporaries that a breeder saw merit in cloning this individual to enable greater semen or embryo production than could be produced from the individual,” he said.

In most herds, that would rarely be the case.

Dr Parnell warned that unless the technology was carefully managed, cloning could have a detrimental impact on long-term genetic improvement via its potential to rapidly increase inbreeding, reduce genetic diversity and concentrate the incidence of undesirable recessive genes.

“As most breeders now realise, all animals carry some undesirable genes as well as desirable genes,” he said.

“Whilst cloning can be used to assist in the rapid multiplication of desirable genes, strategies must also be in pace to manage the coincident concentration of undesirable genes.”

If cloning became very cheap in the future, that is less than $1,000 per animal, the technology may have greater application in the commercial beef sector, he said.

“For example, there would be potential value in creating lines of genetically identical animals with predictable production and meat quality performance,” Dr Parnell said.

“However, I believe that we are still several years away from this being a reality.

“Also, even if we do get to the point that cloning was an economically viable option for use in commercial beef production there would still be the challenge of managing potential consumer resistance, or rejection, to cloned animals entering the beef supply chain.”

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