Just in time for Christmas, researchers at Texas A&M University announced Monday that they had cloned a white-tailed deer for the first time.
The healthy-looking fawn, named Dewey, represents the latest confirmed addition to a clone menagerie at Texas A&M that also includes cattle, goats, pigs and a cat. Others have successfully cloned mammals such as sheep, mice, rabbits, mules and horses.
The deer experiment was a joint venture involving ViaGen Inc., based in Austin, Texas, as well as Texas A&M's College of Veterinary Medicine. Dewey was produced using fibroblast cells that were isolated from skin samples derived from a deceased white-tailed buck, expanded in culture, then frozen and stored in liquid nitrogen. Egg cells were collected from the ovaries of white-tailed does and matured in a test-tube environment.
Two teams of researchers, led by Mark Westhusin and Duane Kraemer of Texas A&M and Charles Long of ViaGen, performed the nuclear transfer procedures and the transfer of the cloned embryos, the university said.
Four implantations were done in an initial experimental round, Westhusin told MSNBC.com. Three of the surrogate mothers became pregnant, but only one was born, to a doe named Sweet Pea on May 23. The fawn was named after Kraemer, whose nickname is Dewey. Westhusin said Dewey was "developing normally for a fawn his age and appears healthy." That was an encouraging sign, because cloned animals sometimes fall prey to abnormalities that aren't apparent at birth.
A second round of implantations was unsuccessful, Westhusin said.
The scientists didn't delay the announcement to coincide with Christmas week, when attention traditionally turns to Santa and his reindeer (a species known scientifically as Rangifer tarandus, as opposed to the white-tailed deer, or Odocoileus virginianus). Rather, the researchers had to wait until genetic tests confirmed that Dewey's DNA was indeed identical to that of the donor buck.
Westhusin said the researchers decided against publishing their results in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. "We really didn't have enough data to make for a really good publication," he explained. Thus, the first word about Dewey came out in Texas A&M's announcement.
"Future scientific advances resulting from the successful cloning of the deer are expected," Westhusin said.
He said researchers were hoping to find out whether Dewey would grow up to be like his posthumous father. For example, is the shape of antlers determined by genetics or by nutrition and other factors? That's been "an age-old question" for scientists studying deer, Westhusin said.
"Here we have what's essentially a genetically identical twin," he noted. "It's going to be interesting to watch over the next few years: Are his antlers going to be great big trophy antlers like those of his cell donor?"
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White-tailed deer currently rank as the most abundant big-game species in North America, and ranchers can turn a significant profit by breeding high-quality deer for livestock and organized hunts. Quality bucks and does are sold for thousands of dollars.
"It kind of flies under the radar," Westhusin told MSNBC.com. "Especially in the state of Texas, there are a lot of ranches that make more money on their deer management than they do on their livestock."
He said it would be illegal to introduce live wild deer into a breeding herd, but genetic material recovered from a deer harvested in the wild could be used for cloning additions to existing breeding stock. "It's a way you can bring in genetic stock from the wild," Westhusin said.
In addition, some deer species, such as Florida's Key deer, are considered endangered. Cloning techniques eventually could be applied to conserving such species, Westhusin said.
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