Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Economics of clones

Livestock cloning operations in the heartland! :-)

Note even genetically enhanced male progeny display larger variance than female progeny. I guess this is just because they lack a second X chromosome.

WIRED: ...Like it or not, guys like Don Coover have already turned meat-eaters into a test market for the safety of cloned meat. "It's inevitable that there are large numbers of clone progeny in the food supply," says Blake Russell, vice president of sales and business development at ViaGen, another cloning company. "The likelihood that anyone could credibly say 'Our animals are not descended from clones' is zero."

The reason cloning makes economic sense isn't that ranchers will sell the actual clones for food. The idea is to sell their offspring. Artificial insemination and semen- shipping have made breeding for optimum genetics a highly profitable business. The owner of a champion bull can charge top dollar for its breeding services or its descendants. Eventually, of course, that animal will get too old to reproduce. But if you clone it, you can keep that revenue stream open. Clones can be bred just like their progenitors, spreading those popular qualities further into the gene pool. "Part of the value of cloning is that you're buying something with unique genetic potential. It's almost like brand identity," says John Lawrence, an extension livestock economist at Iowa State University. "In many regards it's less risky, because you can say you have a proven animal."

Today, it costs about $1,500 to raise a naturally conceived dairy heifer from conception to breeding age; it costs roughly $17,000 to clone a cow. The figures are about $200 versus $4,000 for hogs. (The price drops if you make multiple copies.) But with natural or assisted reproduction, roughly 5 to 10 percent of all females and 50 percent of all males bred for better genetics don't inherit their parents' best qualities and must be sold at a loss, as "salvage" animals. Cloning, on the other hand, almost guarantees the high- fidelity replication of desirable traits. So the clone of a champion bull has higher downstream breeding potential than, say, that bull's brother. If the original bull was a good breeder, then the clone's semen sells for more and its offspring are worth more. For hogs, the numbers add up fast: Through artificial insemination, one boar can impregnate 400 sows a year, yielding about 4,000 piglets. But if that boar was cloned from a proven superior male, its progeny will be worth about $6 more per piglet in "improved feed conversion, growth rate, survivability, and meat quality," says Russell of ViaGen. "So a $3,000 investment in cloning can create $24,000 in added value per year."

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