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West Texas A&M University project clones YG1 carcass

Cassidy Woolsey Published on 24 October 2014
WTAMU students with cloned bulls

West Texas A&M University’s Department of Agricultural Sciences and industry professionals have teamed up to create a new breed of beef cattle – backwards.

In 2012, the university’s first cloned bull, Alpha, was born, putting West Texas A&M at the forefront of genetic history. Since then, three heifers, originating from the same carcass, were born – Gamma I, Gamma II and Gamma III. These four cloned animals share one highly sought-after trait – a rare prime, yield grade 1 carcass.

Ty Lawrence, associate professor of animal science and the director of the Beef Carcass Research Center at WTAMU, says a prime, yield grade 1 animal is about 0.03 percent of the beef population. In other words, only three carcasses out of 10,000 at a slaughterhouse would have that grade combination.

“Seeing one of these carcasses is very rare,” Lawrence says. “I decided it was time that we clone these prime, yield grade 1 carcasses to see if this phenomenon is repeatable and to see if recapturing these genetics can improve the beef industry.”

After suggesting the idea to Dean Hawkins, the head of the Department of Agricultural Sciences at WTAMU, the project began.

Dr. Gregg Veneklasen and Jason Abraham, both experienced in cloning horses and deer, were contacted and brought into the project, as well as embryologist Todd Stroud and scientists from ViaGen – all of whom volunteer their time and efforts to the project. Together, they have converted two carcasses into four live, yet fertile animals.

Creating a new breed of cattle
Earlier in June, Lawrence and his colleagues began the next step in their quest to recapture these unique traits. Using current reproductive technologies, they have bred recipient cows using semen from Alpha and embryos from the Gamma line.

Lawrence hopes that the progeny of these clones can help shift the distribution to a higher-yield, higher-quality animal.

Lawrence points out that if the beef industry can go from 0.03 percent to at least 1 percent, statistically and mathematically that would be a huge shift in the population of prime, yield grade 1 cattle.

“We don’t know how far we will shift it, but we are fairly confident that by combining these animals – the high-quality, high-yield bull with a high-quality, high-yield heifer – we can produce higher-quality and higher-yield animals at a greater rate than the typical beef population,” Lawrence says. “And as far as I know, this project is the first of its kind in history.”

Essentially, a new breed of high-performing cattle could be developed. By replicating those unique traits, Lawrence says it could be a huge benefit to the beef industry.

There have already been multiple inquiries from people wanting to purchase semen from Alpha. However, no semen has been sold yet. Lawrence says after further research comparing Alpha with other top bulls across the country, it could be a possibility.

“We aren’t quite sure what we have yet,” Lawrence says. “It could be an ultimate home run, an absolute dud or somewhere in the middle. A lot of people are excited and curious about this project, but we won’t really have an indication until the progeny are born next spring.”

Finding the genes for prime
Dr. Veneklasen has been involved with various cloning projects for nearly eight years; however, he says he has never done a project quite like this. He hopes that through this project, he can find the genes for marbling and possibly the genes that convey protection to shipping fever and other sicknesses.

“I want to be able to take a snippet from the ear of an animal and use that as a tool to feed animals or select for genetic traits besides just using your eyes,” he says.

Based off of the analysis of the snippet, producers could feed according to the animal’s predicted USDA grading standard, he says. This would not only save producers time and money, but it would save resources as well.

“Can you imagine what this could do for the industry? You have a population of cattle that can never reach prime, but with that genetic information you could feed them for 100 days rather than 300 or 400 days,” he says. “With this scenario, you would be leaving a much smaller carbon footprint. So let’s see if we can make an even more efficient, much faster protein source.”

Shaping the beef industry
Lawrence acknowledges the fact that some consumers might have some initial concern, but he says they are just like any other cow or bull in the herd. The clones will never enter the food system, but their progeny will, he says.

“It is a way to bring back genetics,” Lawrence says. “We don’t know anything about the animal until it is graded, so it is absolutely amazing that we can do this. If you were to see the original clones, they are just like any other bovine animal in every way, shape and form. There is no reason to be worried or anxious; those cattle are just that – they are cattle.”

Hawkins says that because the beef industry is so segmented, once the final product reaches the packing plant those genetics can’t be captured again. The animal is either a steer that has been castrated and harvested or a heifer that has been harvested.

This method will allow the beef industry to work backwards, Hawkins says. With the high-quality, high-performing animals, reverse engineering can be used to recapture those rare genetics.

“If we can produce a real high-quality product, economically and efficiently using resources, I think that is the goal for everyone. And it is profitable for everyone throughout the beef chain,” he says.

The beef industry is not the only one benefiting from the cutting-edge science. Students at WTAMU involved with the project get to experience something that isn’t being done at any other university, Hawkins says.

Kelly Jones, a graduate student at WTAMU and manager of WT Nance Ranch, the ranch where the clones are located, says the project has been a really neat experience for him as well as his peers.

“It feels good to be a part of history,” Jones says. “I am fortunate to have been around during this project and fortunate to be able to interact with all of those that contribute their time and expense to the project.”

Though Jones is nearing the end of his time at WTAMU, he plans to stay involved and hopes to see all of the clone’s progeny grade prime, yield 1.

Moving forward with the project
Starting this project wasn’t easy, Lawrence says. It took one year before Lawrence was able to find samples that were both genotypically and phenotypically prime. And even then not all of those samples began to grow.

Most of the samples possessed the quality characteristics because of environmental influences rather than true genetic merit, Lawrence says. The challenge was to find samples that were both genotypically and phenotypically prime.

In September, another line of clones joined WTAMU, creating even more opportunities, Lawrence says. In the next few years, there will be multiple crosses with multiple original clones to fully test the theory, he says.

“I am very proud to be a part of this project,” Lawrence says. “My ultimate dream or goal would be A, that this works and B, that we are able to find enough cattle that can replicate these traits and ultimately create a new breed of cattle backwards that can benefit the beef industry. That would be pretty darn cool.”

This project is a long ways out, he says. It will take several years before Lawrence and his team are able to fully understand what this project is capable of.  end mark

WTAMU students involved in the project. From left to right is Hayden Alexander, Paydon Hales, Kelly Jones and Landon Canterbury with the Gamma heifers and Alpha. Photo courtesy of WTAMU.