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Local dairy cow is so productive she's being cloned

February 01, 2001

Local dairy cow is so productive she's being cloned



By JULIE E. GREENE / Staff Writer

photo: KEVIN G. GILBERT / staff photographer

Greg Wiles & ZitaWILLIAMSPORT - Zita is already an international star.

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The top U.S. ranked Holstein in 1997, producing 39,000 pounds of milk both in 1997 and 1998, Zita still commands the attention of about 300 international visitors a year to her home on the Wiles farm south of Williamsport.

"Some people say she's like the Madonna of the dairy breed," said Greg Wiles.

But Madonna has never been cloned.

Wiles is expecting the birth of a Zita clone in August, and if he's lucky, perhaps three.

The three surrogate mothers have passed the 60-day mark in their 9-month gestation period, but the critical 90- to 120-day mark still remains, Wiles, 34, said Thursday at his Futuraland 2020 Holsteins farm.

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If any of the clones survive, they could be the first clones produced by a commercial dairy operation in the United States, according to Wiles and the Holstein Association USA Inc.

Some Holstein clones have been born in the United States, but those were part of university projects, said Beth Patchen, spokeswoman for the national Holstein association headquartered in Brattleboro, Vt.

Cloning cows could help with medical advances. Medicines can be developed using cow milk and lung stem cells could be used to help with treatments for diabetes and Alzheimer's, but Wiles said that is not part of his project.

Other commercial dairy farmers have surrogates carrying clones, but Wiles doesn't know when their births are expected.

Wiles was given the opportunity to clone his prize-winning cow by Advanced Cell Technology, the Worcester, Mass., firm that's responsible for the first cloning of an endangered animal, a bull gaur born last month. The baby bull gaur, named Noah, died within 48 hours from dysentery unrelated to cloning, according to the company's Web site at www.advancedcell.com.

As a precaution when it's time for Zita's clones to be born, the Wiles expect to take the surrogate mothers to a university medical center in Delaware, where they will be delivered, possibly by caesarean section.

Wiles and his father, Charles Wiles, didn't hesitate when they were offered the opportunity to clone Zita.

Charles Wiles, 58, said he "flipped" at the news.

Advanced Cell was interested in entering the commercial cloning market and their inquiries led them to the Wiles and Zita.

"It's not a question you get asked many days," Greg Wiles said. "I think I looked at it as a once in a lifetime chance."

"This is a way of preserving her for eternity, if it works out," Wiles said.

A year ago Wiles took a tissue sample from Zita's ear and sent it to Advanced Cell.

For each clone, Advanced Cell removed the DNA from the embryo of a slaughtered cow and attached one of Zita's cells to the embryo, Wiles said. Then each embryo was implanted in a surrogate cow.

Wiles said he still isn't sure how much the entire procedure will cost, but estimates have been from $30,000 to $50,000 per calf. Wiles hopes to keep down the cost by doing the data collection himself and using his own cows as surrogates.

One of the clones will be sold at a silent auction on March 17 at the Maryland Holstein Convention at the Washington County Agricultural Education Center to benefit the Maryland Holstein programs.

If all three clones are born healthy and turn out to be good milk producers, the Wiles could recoup their investment by selling embryos from the two clones they get to keep.

They also plan to implant more embryos in surrogates this month to increase their chances of healthy clones, Wiles said.

Zita's top production of 39,000 pounds of milk was almost double the national average of 22,000 pounds, Wiles said. Zita also had 5.1 percent butterfat in her milk, almost double the normal butterfat content.

"The big advantage will be in her genetics. ... This gives us a chance with each new clone to make as many offspring as we can make," Greg Wiles said.

Zita has already borne six daughters. One of her daughters and one of her granddaughters were each ranked at one point as the top Holstein in the nation.

Whether the clones are good milk producers or not, the Wiles want to help Advanced Cell with the research.

"Our goal is not to make a whole herd of clones," but help with scientific research, Wiles said.

The clones will be monitored to see how closely they actually resemble Zita, who has grown to be 62 inches tall and 2,300 pounds.

"It's just such a new technology. I've always heard, through science fiction, cloning should be identical," he said. "This is a chance to see how close it can come."

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