Brave Moo World

The Minnesota Zoo showcases a designer dairy

Last month a Wisconsin livestock company announced that one of its herds of cloned dairy cows had begun giving milk. "This is the world's first all-clone dairy," Dr. Michael Bishop, president and chief scientific officer told Madison's Capital Times. "It will be used for research and to demonstrate the viability of cloned dairy animals in a commercial environment."

Doubt that the public will be accepting of this brave new technology? Then consider that a week before Infigen announced that it was going to begin testing the clones' milk, the company retrieved two of its cloned heifers, Cookies and Cream, from the Minnesota Zoo and dropped off two replacements, Carbon and Copy. Infigen's clones have been living in the dairy barn at the zoo's Wells Fargo Family Farm exhibit since April 2000, making Minnesota's the only zoo in the world to display cloned livestock. (Last June the heifers were joined by Gene, a cloned bull given to the zoo by Infigen's parent company.)

"The zoo, being a state educational institution, has the chance to serve as an unbiased broker of information to the public on many very difficult issues such as cloning and genetic modification," explains Jim Streater, who is in charge of all the zoo's living exhibits. "Where else can a person see a clone and come and ask questions from an unbiased source on the pros and cons? The zoo is the only institution in the world that displays clones, and we do it as part of our educational mission."

Streater and Tony Fisher, who manages the clone exhibit, see it as consistent with the zoo's broader mission: to strengthen the bond between people and the living earth. That bond is most evident, Streater says, in things agricultural: "The animals we use in agriculture, we actually end up consuming."

Carbon, Copy, Cookies, and Cream are expensive, experimental animals. It's unlikely anybody is going to be eating their T-bones or drinking their milk anytime soon. But they represent the future of the dairy business, according to Streater and Fisher, and the mission of the zoo's farm exhibit is to represent the future, present, and past in an accurate and unbiased manner.

The Zoo does have the chance to be an unbiased broker of information regarding cloning and agriculture, agrees Jan O'Donnell, executive director of the Arden Hills-based nonprofit Minnesota Food Association. But the state-owned institution missed its chance with the Wells Fargo Family Farm exhibit, in her opinion. O'Donnell, who has spent two decades trying to educate city dwellers about agriculture and food, was incensed by the bias she perceived in the farm and cloning exhibits.

"I don't feel that the representation of genetic manipulation was fair or balanced in any way," she says. "Cloning was portrayed as here to stay without any mention of how there are absolutely no cloned cows on any working farms today. I didn't see any information addressing the serious and valid concerns about cloning that so many people have today. The not-so-subtle message at the zoo farm was to pat the concerned urban person on the head and say, 'Not to worry, we have your best interests in mind--really!'"

Fisher and Streater assert that they do illustrate the pros and cons of cloning to zoo visitors through presentations and one-on-one discussions. "We talk about the pros and cons that people are putting forward, such as the possible benefits not only for agriculture but for medicine through swine transgenic cloning," Streater says. "We look at all the different issues. We tell people how the cloning process works at Infigen."

How about cloning's down side?

"We tell them it's not really fully researched yet," Tony Fisher replies. "It needs to be fully discovered as to what are the bad points. I really think in the short run there may be some genetic loss if you're not careful. But it can also increase genetic diversity if you manage it correctly."

To make a cloned calf, a cloned and genetically manipulated embryo is inserted into a surrogate mother cow who carries it until birth. Other scientists with experience cloning livestock say that the process still is complicated and inefficient. "It's hard to fool Mother Nature," Andy Spell, the spokesman for a Kansas-based cloning company, told Successful Farming. "We may start with as many as 250 embryos and gradually lose most over time and, if we're lucky, get just a handful at term. We're still trying to perfect the process. It's expensive at this point. Our competitors are offering live clones at costs of anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 per live calf."

Information on animal cloning, Fisher and Streater note, can be hard to get, because companies involved in cloning want to protect their secrets on genetic manipulation until they can patent them. "The documentation on some of those things is not very good. As far as the low success rates and deformed births, Infigen does not have [those problems] in their cloning process," Jim Streater says. "They have a much higher success rate than the other companies that are cloning, which leads to their patenting of the cloning process they're developing. As you see from most of their press releases associated with taking out a new patent, they feel they're ahead of all the cloning companies in the world in their success rate and they claim they do not have the deformed births commonly reported in the press."

In fact, Infigen has a 70 to 85 percent embryo failure rate, according to company vice president Peter Steinerman. However, he says, "Infigen's cloned calves have no more birth defects than does a dairy herd bred in the normal way."

Infigen claims that its 150 cloned cows make up the world's largest herd of bovine clones; its sister company, Genus, claims to be the world's largest artificial cattle-breeding business. Infigen also has a line of experimental cloned transgenic pigs and cows for use in medical and pharmaceutical research. Transgenic clones contain genetic material from another species; some of Infigen's clones contain human genes.

The cloned cows at the zoo do not contain human genes. Streater and Fisher say they'd like to get one of those to foster further public discussion, but they expect Infigen might not want to loan out such an extremely valuable animal.

 

News intern Nick Wunder contributed research for this story.

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