The first cloned animal on the African continent, a Holstein heifer, was born at the Embryo Plus Embryo and AI Centre at Brits in the North West Province on the 19th of April 2003.
No semen or bull was involved in the birth of the calf. It has been derived from a single cell taken by biopsy from the ear of a donor cow, inserted into an empty cow-egg and later implanted into a recipient cow.
The successful birth has been achieved in a collaborative cloning programme conducted by Professor Gabor Vajta of Denmark and two of veterinarians, Dr Morné de la Rey and Dr Robert Treadwell.
The heifer has been named “Futhi”, meaning “replica or repeat” in Zulu. At birth she weighed 32 kg, which is the normal mass of a newborn Holstein calf, and within minutes she consumed three litres of colostrum. Her white and black markings are almost identical to those of the donor cow LMJC 865.
The donor cow is a former South African milk-production record-holder with her yield peaking at 78 litres a day. Her milk-production record stands at 20 426 kg of milk in a 300 day lactation. She is now nine years old and in calf in the Holstein stud of Mr Johan Schoeman of Grootpan Farm in the Bothaville district.
Earlier last year Prof. Vajta, a world-wide respected embryologist of the Danish Institute of Agricultural Sciences at the Foulum Research Centre, came to South Africa and together with his South African colleagues, produced the single-cell cloned embryo, which was grown in a test tube for eight days before being transferred into the recipient.
On 26 July 2002 Dr Treadwell transferred the embryo into the recipient cow. The cloned heifer was born on 19 April 2003 by caesarean section performed by Dr’s Treadwell and De la Rey.
“A healthy calf was born. The first of some great prospects for the future. Not only can this have great benefits for the agricultural and biotechnology industries but it could also prove useful in the conservation of some critically endangered wildlife species.”
“The Embryo Plus Centre, working in close collaboration with international embryologists, is now looking to the future to play a role in the cloning of animals,” says Dr Morné de la Rey, director of the Centre.
Dr de la Rey says the world-wide success rate of producing live cloned offspring from high-quality domestic livestock has improved in the past decade. The first cloned mammal was Dolly the sheep in Britain, which, before she died recently, had produced healthy lambs.
“By cloning it is possible to reproduce the same attributes of known high-quality animals, thus eliminating the unknown factors that could result from normal breeding practices. There are of course, those who say that the downside of cloning is that it could narrow a breed’s genetic base, with no further genetic improvement,” he says.
“Because of its very high cost, cloning will not be economically viable in commercial agriculture. The implementation of the technique will initially be limited to biotechnology development, with the result that the genetic base of any breed will continue to be broadened by the existing conventional breeding practices.
Cloning will probably be justified only when cells are taken from exceptionally high-producing and invaluable livestock. These animals must also have no prospect of generating off-spring by the more conventional and cheaper assisted reproductive techniques”
With the increasing demand for food production, we are constantly looking for higher producing animals. Cloning might be an alternative to reproduce high genetic quality animals in future.
The cloning of trans-genetic animals will be of importance in the future. A trans-genetic animal is formed by injecting certain genes into an oocyte (egg) of a cow. These genes are then incorporated into the DNA of the recipient oocyte. One can therefor select genes for example for high milk-production, high butterfat production or tenderness of beef.
To get the desired genes fixed at the correct location, are a lot of times unsuccessful. Once you have achieved a trans-genetic animal, you can then clone it to accurately copy the DNA of the trans-genetic animals.
At the moment a lot of research is going into producing trans-genetic animals that secrete certain substances like proteins in their milk. These proteins are used in human medicine. To create these proteins synthetically, are in some cases 1000 times more expensive than to produce it by an animal, which secretes it in their milk.
The Embryo Plus Centre, specialising in embryos, has established a reputable name worldwide. In recent years the centre has exported about 12 000 embryos to many parts of the world, including Canada, the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Australia and African countries.
Last year it exported 3 000 embryos from South Africa’s indigenous Bonsmara, Afrikaner, Nguni, Tuli, and Drakensberger cattle breeds and also breeds like Simmental, Brahman, Sussex and Angus.
One of the possible benefits of animal cloning may be the influence it could have on the conservation of some critically endangered wildlife species. According to Dr Paul Bartels from the Endangered Wildlife Trust, wildlife species are facing greater threats to their survival than ever before, due mainly to human interference.
Habitat protection remains the first priority in wildlife conservation, however this may not be enough to save some wildlife species from extinction. It is prudent to use whatever techniques available, including cloning, so as not to lose further genetic diversity within wildlife populations.
Cloning, he adds, has the potential to assist in the preservation of a species whose numbers are critically low and from which tissue was previously collected when the species numbers were still high. Theoretically then, one could clone one (only) animal from each cell line of previously banked tissue and so broaden the genetic diversity of the remaining population.
Although cloning technology still has some way to go, this first calf holds great hopes for Africa’s rare indigenous livestock and wildlife species as well as for agricultural science and biotechnology development.