Brazil Awaits New Clones in 2002
Por Mario Osava
Vitoria was the first calf to be cloned in Brazil, but she will not be the last. At least six university research centers are working on cloning calves - any one of which could be born within the next few months as part of efforts to improve productivity in the agricultural sector.
RIO DE JANEIRO, (Tierramérica).- Since October 2001, cloning in Brazil has become a soap opera-like issue. The giant Globo television network produced a drama known as "The Clone" in which the main character is duplicated in a laboratory mishap that a scientist keeps secret for years.
Millions of Brazilian TV viewers follow the soap opera that has fuelled - but also distorted - the national debate on cloning.
The few who realize that, far from the spotlight, there is work under way by at six research centers aimed at cloning cattle, particularly for agricultural ends. There is a great deal of expectation due to the first successfully cloned calf.
On March 17, 2001, Brazil became a pioneer in the cloning of animals in Latin America with the birth of a calf named Vitoria da EMBRAPA, after the research center that made her life possible.
Vitoria is the result of the efforts of the Center for Genetic Resources and Biotechnology (Cenargen), located in Brasilia, and one of the 40 institutes of the state-run network of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA).
The calf was born weighing 50 kilograms and is considered "large, but normal," according to the parameters of the Simental, a cattle breed of Swiss origins, Rodolfo Rumpf, coordinator of the project, told Tierramérica.
The experts are closely observing the animal's traits, particularly her fertility and capacity for normal reproduction.
Cloning took place through an electro-fusion procedure in which genetic material was transferred from an embryo to an ovum without a cellular nucleus in order to produce more embryos.
Then, the cloned embryos were implanted in the uteruses of adult cows for gestation. Rumpf learned the technique in Canada in 1993, but began to concentrate on applying it in his native country five years later with the help of his research team.
"We began by creating a genetic bank of embryos and ovum with the intention of regenerating species that are in the process of extinction," he said.
The project was expanded later with the goal of creating transgenic animals, that is, animals with implanted genes. For example, cows that would be able to produce milk similar to human milk or milk with proteins intended for medical benefits.
Today, Rumpf's team is testing more complicated procedures, such as those used in Britain in the cloning of the sheep known as Dolly, to clone an adult animal via the transfer of its genetic material to an ovum that has no nucleus.
Cenargen already used this technique to produce a clone that is now in the gestation phase, but Rumpf fears that a spontaneous abortion will put an end to the experiment, as has occurred in other cases.
"We do not know what is causing so many abortions," said José Antonio Visintin, head of the Department of Animal Reproduction at the University of Sao Paulo's Veterinary School and coordinator of a similar research project.
Some of the crucial difficulties in cloning entail identifying the most appropriate cells for the process and understanding "how the genetic machinery functions and how the cells multiply," he said, adding that there is a chronic shortage of financial resources for scientific research in poor countries like Brazil.
Visintin's team at the university has dedicated the last two years to the cloning of Nelore cattle, the most popular breed in Brazil. Currently, there are various clones in gestation that have come from the genetic material of embryos and adults alike. The researcher is confident they will successfully clone an adult by the end of this year.
Nevertheless, Visintin avoids making specific predictions so that eventual failures do not create uncertainty or the loss of credibility for the project. The cloning of adult animals is the ultimate goal because it would allow the cattle industry to produce more animals than cloning based on the genetic material of embryos. The latter only permits researchers to obtain "32 or 64 cells, maximum, per embryo" he explained.
In any case, this procedure would only be profitable if it made it possible to create "excellent reproducers" that maintain all characteristics of the cloned animals, and involves a technique that is completely safe, Joaquim Mansano Garcia, director of an animal cloning project at the State University of Sao Paulo, told Tierramérica.
His team works with Nelore cattle in Jaboticabal, a city in Sao Paulo state, and has at least four clones in gestation - ranging from 30 to 90 days - as well as many recently transplanted embryos.
The objective of these experiments is not "simply cloning", but rather the detailed study of the genetic process in an embryo's development.
The controversy centered on human cloning has had an impact on experiments with animals, and reports on research conducted in other countries have inspired the above-mentioned Globo network soap opera as well as initiatives to ban the cloning of humans in Brazil.
"There is a rejection of the word 'cloning', and conservative and uninformed lawmakers want to prevent any sort of related experiments," complained Volnei Garrafa, a professor of bioethics at the University of Brasilia and president of the Brazilian Bioethics Society, which claims a membership of some 400 people.
The soap opera "The Clone" only feeds confusion by "trivializing and distorting the issue and by generating false expectations" about the possibility of cloning a person, something that is still unattainable, he stressed.
Garrafa is opposed to human cloning for reproductive ends, but defends cloning for therapeutic purposes, such as producing - using embryos - human tissue and organs that could save the lives of the gravely ill.
The technique is condemned by many who wield moral arguments and who believe that a human embryo should be considered a person.
Legislation in Britain has resolved the matter in an intelligent way by authorizing cloning experiments for therapeutic purposes using human embryos up to 14 days old, that is, before the formation of the embryo's nervous system, commented Garrafa.
* Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent.