Research in the genetics and cloning of agricultural animals is far ahead of research into the human gene. Today, a dairy farmer may go online and order a clone of a prized cow. The price tag may be stiff, but it is possible. A cattle producer may buy a kit for $125 to collect tissues from a bull or cow should he want a clone of the animal in the future. And soon, hog producers will raise pigs with organs compatible with their own.

While human cloning and DNA services face ethical questions, animal agriculture has quietly moved ahead into the world of biotechnology. As a result, agricultural animal breeders can access cloning and other genetic services not available for humans.

One company seeking a major role in the animal biotech business is Infigen. It is one of the first companies to offer cattle and sheep cloning to commercial farmers, and it plans to do the same with hogs and other agricultural animals.

As companies like Infigen break through the technology barriers, livestock farmers will benefit from access to better genetics. Cloning will help bring the top genetics into a herd quicker than traditional breeding and selection methods can.

A hundred clones. Headquartered in DeForest, WI, Infigen has successfully cloned 100 cattle since 1997. One of its cloned cows brought $82,000 at an auction last fall, which illustrates just how well accepted animal cloning has become.

With this kind of success, Infigen is poised to capture the budding cloning market, which already has several competitors. “When people have DNA testing and technological needs related to animal agriculture, we want to be the company they come to,” says Jesús Martínez, Infigen's vice president of marketing. To help ensure this, the privately held biotechnology company recently went online with its list of DNA products and services, which include animal cloning, diagnostic testing and tissue/cell storage.

Right now, the products are geared for beef, dairy and sheep producers. But Martínez says the company hopes to add other species including hogs very soon.

Hefty price tag. Cloning is the most visible and high-priced service on the list. Infigen's trademarked cloning service, called AgriCloning, costs between $50,000 and $100,000, depending on how many animals the customer wants cloned.

“It is still very expensive because the efficiencies are very low,” Martínez explains. The success rate for reproducing a cloned animal is 10 to 15%. He believes that if the company can improve that efficiency to 25 to 30%, the process will become more affordable to more dairy and beef producers.

“Most of the people using our cloning services are elite breeders and people with show animals,” Martínez reports. “But our future focus is on having these services available on a mass basis so everyone can benefit. We believe we are three to five years away from achieving such objectives.”

Infigen has its own herd of milking clones. By June of this year it expects to have 20 to 25 cloned animals in milk production.

Improving speed and efficiency. The company recently received a grant from the National Institute of Science and Technology to research molecular methods to increase the speed and efficiency of the cloning process. Under terms of the grant, Infigen will develop ways to improve the success rate of nuclear transfer. The technologies being used in the research include high-speed methods of identifying the expression of genes in early-stage embryo development and correlating individual gene expression to the likelihood of a live birth from a cloned embryo.

“Once we improve the efficiencies, I think cloning will benefit the small as well as large farmer,” Martínez says. Any herd, including a small one, could benefit by reducing milk production variability among the cows. For example, a 50-cow dairy will greatly improve if it has 25 cows all coming from one cell line that produces 40,000 lbs. of milk/year. When cloning is economically feasible, Martínez expects dairies to use cloned cows for a significant portion of their herd. He envisions that, when beef cattle are cloned, whole herds will have desirable carcass quality traits or disease resistance.

Cloning services from Infigen include stringent bio-security standards and excellent cattle health management and care to ensure that animals produced are disease free and globally health qualified.

“We see cloning as the next stage in breeding technology,” Martínez says. “First there was use of fresh semen to inseminate animals. Then people went from fresh to frozen semen, then embryo transfer and most recently in vitro fertilization. Now we have cloning.”

Transgenics. Infigen also produces transgenic clones. Transgenics involves inserting a foreign DNA sequence into a clone's genetic makeup before it becomes an embryo. Infigen uses this manipulation to develop cloned animals that produce therapeutic pharmaceutical products. The company has raised transgenic cloned cows that produce milk with a specific protein for use in human health.

The success rate for producing transgenic clones is low, Martínez reports. The company produces transgenic animals in collaboration with other companies and partners.

Infigen has also successfully produced several litters of cloned pigs. This achievement forecasts the future of genetic manipulation of pigs to provide organs and tissues for human transplantation.

Tissue/Cell storage. The most popular service Infigen offers today is tissue/cell storage. Anyone may order a $125 kit to take a tissue sample of an animal for future use in cloning. Farmers and breeders use this service to preserve cells from high genetic-merit, injured or aged animals. Tissue/cell storage and health tests are included in the cost.

Once Infigen receives the tissue, it develops a cell line from the tissue and then stores it for future cloning. The company offers this service at a cost of $325 to $400/animal. Storage fees are free for the first year. The cost for storage for a cell line beginning the second year is $50 for up to 25 animals.

Although Infigen's focus is on cattle, the tissue/cell storage will handle other agricultural animals in the future, including hogs and horses.

“We are focusing on improving efficiencies so cloning will be available to those wanting to take advantage of the technology, ” Martínez says.

All of Infigen's services are marketed under the trademark Genmark, a division of the company. For more information about the company and its services, contact Infigen Inc., 1825 Infinity Dr., DeForest, WI 53532, 608/846-0500, visit www.genmarkag.com or www.infigen.com

Sidebar: Breaking the code

Knowledge of the hog's complete genome will allow faster breeding stock improvement.

If you think hogs today grow fast and efficiently, watch out. The next generation of swine genetics promises to produce breeding stock with feed efficiency and growth rates never seen before.

Dekalb Choice Genetics recently announced it has mapped the complete swine genome. As a result, the company hopes to dramatically increase genetic improvements in its breeding stock, particularly the traits important to commercial farmers. This should bring more efficient breeding stock to the marketplace faster.

First species mapped. A subsidiary of Monsanto, Dekalb Choice Genetics completed the map in collaboration with Incyte Genomics. They are the first to complete the genome map of a livestock species.

The swine genome map will help company scientists pinpoint genes that affect traits such as growth rate, meat quality and reproductive efficiency. Then breeding stock having the genes for the desired traits will move into the company's traditional breeding system.

“This has not yielded any new products to date, but it is a promise that we will be able to accelerate the speed of genetic selection two to six times faster than with traditional breeding methods,” reports Tom Kasser, general manager of Dekalb Choice Genetics. “We might improve growth rate 1 to 2% a year. If we can raise that to 4 to 10%, the opportunities are very big.”

Enhancing desired traits. Apparently there is a lot of room for improvement. Kasser says a hog only turns 20% of its daily protein intake into lean muscle. “So there are tremendous opportunities to enhance lean growth rate. We just don't understand all the controlling genes and mechanisms,” he adds.

Now, having the complete swine genome map will help the company geneticists discover those genes and mechanisms. “Many of the traits of economic importance are driven by a portfolio of genes,” Kasser explains. These are difficult to find without a complete genome map.

Work on the swine genome project did not start until Monsanto purchased Dekalb, which included the swine genetics company. By late 1999, geneticists at Dekalb Swine Breeders started work on the genome using Monsanto's genetic technologies. Last summer, the breeding company changed its name to Dekalb Choice Genetics and drew closer to completing the map. In January the map was complete.