"Maybe cloning will not be part of a commercial breeding program"
- Dr Simon Walker, chief scientist, the South Australian Research and Development Institute
Death rate of cloned sheep a blow to wool industry
By Penelope Debelle in Adelaide
Sidney Morning Herald, November 28 2001
As many as nine out of 10 cloned lambs are dying soon after birth at the South Australian research centre that produced Australia's first cloned sheep, Matilda.
The South Australian Research and Development Institute's chief scientist, Dr Simon Walker, said yesterday that the high death rates were unexpected and raised doubts about the use of cloned sheep for commercial breeding.
Many of the cloned lambs are destroyed soon after birth because their lungs are too immature to sustain breathing or their kidney and urinary systems are underdeveloped.
But the connection between this and cloning is far from understood.
Instead of the flock of 30 cloned merinos that the institute expected to have at its Turretfield Research Centre in the Barossa Valley, there are about six.
"We produced over 30, but most of them have died," Dr Walker said.
When Matilda, then a two-week-old lamb born by somatic cell cloning, was unveiled almost 18 months ago it was hoped she would be the saviour of the struggling wool industry.
Cloning sheep by-passes the lengthy breeding process and can produce animals tailor-made to the market.
However, the institute is having trouble producing sufficient live results to test the sheep for abnormalities such as their ability to withstand heat and cold, their susceptibility to illness and their meat-and wool-growing abilities.
One of the institute's successes, Macarthur the ram, is due to be used in an artificial insemination program so the normality of the offspring can be tested.
Dr Walker said Macarthur was part of a larger research program to generate enough animals to answer questions about cloned sheep.
"It is assumed clones will perform just like their parent clone. But they may not. These questions have to be addressed before it gets out there in a commercial situation; in fact, if it ever does get out there."
The next step at the institute will be to generate more animals and find the underlying connection between cloning and the newborn deaths.
The result of this will determine whether the technique can be changed to eradicate the problem, or whether the commercial application of cloning is viable.
"Maybe cloning will not be part of a commercial breeding program," Dr Walker said.