Ever since the creation of the first cloned mammal — sheep named Dolly — at the Roslin Institute in Scotland on July 5, 1996, countless genetically exact copies of various animals have been generated the world over. But only a few countries have adopted cloning as a means of developing elite populations of commercially important livestock species to enhance their productivity and market value. India, where livestock rather than crop farming forms the mainstay of the livelihood of small and marginal farmers and landless rural people, has done so quite successfully, chiefly in the case of buffaloes. Workable indigenous cloning technology for this purpose was developed in the late 2000s. At present, five cloned buffalo bulls are already being used for the production of semen to be used for artificial insemination and 13 more would start doing so by December this year.
The first cloned buffalo calf, born at the Karnal-based National Dairy Research Institute (NDRI) on February 6, 2009, aptly named “Samrupa” (meaning lookalike), had died seven days after its birth due to lung infection. It had put the very technology in the dock but only till the second cloned calf, called Garima, was born four months later on June 6, 2009. It survived and even produced healthy progeny. The country now excels in buffalo cloning.
For the first time in the world, seven cloned copies of an elite breeding buffalo bull (identified as M-29) and a re-cloned calf of an earlier cloned bull called Hissar-Gaurav were evolved last year at the Hissar (Haryana)-based Central Institute for Research on Buffaloes (CIRB). This bull itself was a clone of a top-quality bull (M-4359). All these eight clones were born from different foster mothers between October 2019 and January 2020. This institute has used these bulls to produce thousands of doses of semen.
Cloning technology had evoked a great deal of scepticism in the beginning. Its detractors viewed it as potentially hazardous, besides being unethical, particularly if it was misused to produce cloned human beings or other destructive living objects. But its backers saw a potential role of this technology in the medical field. They visualised the clones of genetically modified animals to be the donors of organs for human beings and such embryos to be the source of stem cells for treating degenerative nerve ailments, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. Significantly, some also deemed it a means to preserve endangered species of animals.
The short life span of the first cloned sheep, Dolly, had, however, strengthened the anti-cloning sentiment but only to be disproved later. Though Dolly had managed to conceive and give birth to four lambs, it had developed crippling arthritis in her hind legs, raising doubts about genetic abnormalities resulting from the cloning process. The celebrated sheep itself had to be put down in February 2003 because of an incurable ailment at the age of six.
However, the perception of cloning and cloned animals has undergone a sea change by now. It has been realised that there is little that is unique only to cloned animals and cannot happen in the naturally born ones. Of course, there is greater risk of anomalies in clones vis-a-vis naturally born animals but that is due largely to procedural issues, such as improper development of the embryo during the in vitro (test tube) stage or soon after its transfer to the surrogate mother.
Most clones, which are normal at birth, generally grow normally. They also behave like traditionally bred animals. CIRB Director P S Yadav says special efforts are underway to make buffalo owners aware of the usefulness of the cloning technology, especially to produce copies of selected bulls having a desirable pedigree and progeny records. The availability of an adequate number of duplicates of such bulls can facilitate a mass-scale genetic upgrade of buffaloes to raise the production of both milk and meat, which has become a key export item.
Indian Council of Agricultural Research Director-General Trilochan Mohapatra maintains that cloning is a scientific method of producing genetically identical copies of an individual animal in a manner similar to the asexual (vegetative) reproduction of crop plants. “Cloning technology can be one of the suitable options for faster multiplication of elite bulls in the shortest possible time so that their semen could meet the nation’s demand,” he maintains.
Indeed, the development and popularisation of this technology can be a boon for the Indian livestock sector, which relies heavily on buffalo milk. The buffalo is getting preference over the cow also because it is a milch-cum-meat animal. It yields more milk and with a higher fat content than an average cow does. There are no legal bars or taboos concerning the disposal of aged animals. The future of the Indian livestock sector lies truly in the promotion of well-bred buffaloes, apart from elite breeds of desi (indigenous) cows and crossbred animals.
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