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Cloned cows carry on in Zita's image

March 08, 2001

Cloned cows carry on in Zita's image



By DAN KULIN

dank@herald-mail.com

photo: KEVIN G. GILBERT / staff photographer

Cloned calvesWILLIAMSPORT - One of the nation's top dairy cows died Friday, but in a way she lives on, and maybe could forever - she's been cloned and more genetic copies are on the way.

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The first two of possibly several clones of Zita, a prize-winning Holstein, arrived in Williamsport Wednesday afternoon.

The black and white clones moo and chew, and each has a white spot on the top of its head just as the original Zita did. Their markings are not identical to Zita's or to each other's, because markings are influenced by conditions within the womb.

The clones, Cyagra Z., named for the cloning company, and Genesis Z., were born at a Pennsylvania veterinarian hospital. Cyagra was born Feb. 6 and Genesis was born Feb. 13.

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The calves were brought home Wednesday to Futuraland 2020 Holsteins, the Wiles' family farm south of Williamsport.

"The fact that Zita passed away on Friday makes it more happy that they're here," said Greg Wiles. "This is a way we've preserved her."

Zita, who recently turned 10 years old, died Friday after breaking a vertebra in her back. Wiles said cows typically live 5 years, but can live up to 15 years.

Charles Wiles, Greg's father, said he noticed that the calves' mannerisms are similar to Zita's. He said one of the calves put her head against a person's leg when they were trying to move her, just as Zita had.

Zita was the top U.S. ranked Holstein in 1997, producing 39,000 pounds of milk both in 1997 and 1998. Her top production of 39,000 pounds of milk was almost double the national average of 22,000 pounds, Greg Wiles said. Zita also had 5.1 percent butterfat in her milk, almost double the normal butterfat content.

While Zita was a top Holstein, she did not produce as many offspring as the Wiles had hoped.

Zita produced 14 offspring, while cows typically can have 50 to 60 offspring, Wiles said.

The clones are genetic duplicates of Zita, but the Wiles hope that with some changes to the environment, the clones will produce more offspring.

Ron Gillespie, vice president for marketing for Cyagra Co., which is a division of Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Mass., said that because environment plays a role in development, the clones could turn out to be better producers of offspring than Zita was.

The Wiles are expecting three more Zita clones to be born in August. They also will start another round of Zita clones later this week when they inject cloned embryos into more cows.

News of the clones expected in August was recently announced, but the Wiles had kept news of the first two clones a secret.

"We wanted to make sure we had healthy calves," Charles Wiles said.

"They're 100 percent normal calves," Greg 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 another cow and attached one of Zita's cells to the embryo, Wiles said. Then each embryo was implanted in a surrogate cow.

The rights to one of Zita's clones to be born in August will be sold at an auction on March 17 at the Maryland Holstein Convention at the Washington County Agricultural Education Center.

The clones were carried by cows on the Wiles' farm, as are the coming clones.

Wiles said the cloned cows will begin supplying milk in about two years.

Charles Wiles said he doubts commercial cow cloning will be popular because it is so expensive. The process can cost $25,000 to $50,000 per calf, while a regular calf can be bought for $1,500, he said.

"You won't find a herd of clones," Wiles said.

Greg Wiles said the clones will cost them about $25,000, and they saved some money by using their own cows as surrogates for the clones.

The Wiles paid $9,100 for Zita in 1991, he said.

Wiles said that "on paper" Zita's parents were among the top cows and bulls in the nation.

Cyagra Co.'s Gillespie said herds of cloned cows may become a reality.

Gillespie said a cloned cow costs $25,000 now, but eventually the cost should be $2,000 to $3,000 per cow.

He said a big factor in the cost is that now it takes an average of 20 cows to find one successful surrogate for a clone.

He said the target is a 33 percent success rate.

Gillespie, vice president for marketing for Cyagra Co., said from 100 to 150 cattle have been cloned in the U.S. since 1997.

He said the Wiles clones were the first ones to stay on the farm while they were in the womb, instead of being kept at a lab.

Also, most of the cloned cows have been used for medical purposes whereas these clones are for commercial use.

Gillespie said two other cows cloned for commercial use were born on Christmas in Wisconsin. He did not think those cows have been returned to the farm yet.

Gillespie said some people are worried that if cloning becomes widespread a disease that strikes one of the cloned animals could affect all the animals.

"However, I'd argue that when we find the optimal cow, why breed when we can make copies of her?" Gillespie asked.

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